Back in the 1990s, The Jayhawks were supposed to be huge. They’d plugged away for several years before releasing their breakthrough, Hollywood Town Hall, in 1992, earning the label “alt-country” more by coincidence than by actual sound. That album and its follow-up, 1995’s Tomorrow the Green Grass, honed the rustic harmonies and observational songwriting of Gary Louris and Mark Olson, who sang beautifully together about real people traipsing through the snowy Midwest. Although critically praised, the band never quite graduated from a cult to a mainstream act, which resulted in Olson leaving the band and Louris soldiering on and writing some embittered songs.
Sixteen years after Olson’s departure and eight since the last Jayhawks album, the band has…well, not reunited exactly, but reassembled for their eighth album, Mockingbird Time. The years have been good to them, and their early songs still sound fresh in their marriage of dusty classic rock and old-time country harmonies. Following an ambitious round of reissues (including the retrospective Music from the North Country), they come across as grizzled veterans on Mockingbird Time: The guitars still chime optimistically and the voices still mix eloquently, as the band settles comfortably and confidently into a sound that’s as hearty and durable as ever.
Maybe too comfortably, as it turns out. While it may not be a true comeback (Olson and Louris recently released a joint album under their own names), Mockingbird Time still has the desperate feel of a comeback album, with a please-all-the-people mentality that undercuts the otherwise fine performances. Louris in particular sounds a bit timid here, rarely cutting loose with his famously rambunctious guitar solos or indulging any of the experiments that made Sound of Lies, The Jayhawks’ first Olson-less album, such a dark pleasure (and perhaps the most underrated entry in their catalog). The band reduces that old, evocative sound into perfectly pleasant, studiously unobtrusive Americana that lacks power or personality.
But Mockingbird Time suffers most in the songwriting, which too often relies on soft hooks and indistinct details that never quite add up to conflicts or characters. Olson and Louris instead traffic in bland homilies like “don’t hide your colors” and awkward requests like “Take me to the river tonight and let me stand out in the rain.” You’re at the river, guys. You don’t really need the rain. “High Water Blues” tackles an intriguing subject—losing family keepsakes, photographs, and history to a flood—but the song is so riddled with jumbled, clashing melodic lines that it’s hard to focus on the lyrics.
But Louris and Olsons still sound as good together as ever, their harmonies still sounding loose and rough and natural. So the best moments here are usually the quietest, like the short “Pouring Rain at Dawn,” which sets their vocals against a modest country backdrop. For now it’s enough just to hear them singing together again, but going forward they’ll need to take a lot more liberties with the Jayhawks sound if they want to recapture and build on their old glories.