Somehow Gary Louris and Marc Perlman have persevered. The singer/guitarist and bassist co-founded the Jayhawks with Mark Olson more than 30 years ago, and they’ve kept at it through various lineup changes that have included Olson leaving, returning and leaving again. He’s absent on the band’s ninth album, Paging Mr. Proust, which pairs Louris and Perlman with Tomorrow the Green Grass-era members Karen Grotberg on keys and vocals and Tim O’Reagan on drums.
The Jayhawks very much mined a country-rock vein on that album, released in 1995. The sound of Paging Mr. Proust is harder to place, which cuts both ways. On the one hand, these dozen songs demonstrate Louris’ versatility as a writer and the band’s range as performers (the album also includes contributions from R.E.M. members Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Scott McCaughey. Buck co-produced with Louris and Tucker Martine). Opener “Quiet Corners & Empty Spaces” contains elements of vintage alt-country Jayhawks in the rich blend of acoustic and electric guitars and wistful vocal harmonies, while “The Devil Is in Her Eyes” and “Leaving the Monsters Behind” capture the essence of the band’s post-Olson roots-pop in the sweeping melodic hooks and, on the former, a roiling guitar solo. The latter features lush call-and-response harmony vocals that emphasize Grotberg’s voice, to excellent effect.
For all the echoes of Jayhawks past, there’s plenty that’s new here, too. The experimental-sounding “Ace” is the most obviously different song. Structured around just two chords, it’s a drone-like construct featuring a hypnotic repeating melodic figure, glimmers of distant keys and noisy squalls of scuzzed-out electric guitar. The strummy rise-and-fall chords of “Comeback Kids” have sharper angles than the band’s songs usually employ, and the punk-kissed raver “The Dust of Long Dead Stars” pits a jittery, frenetic instrumental arrangement with a soaring, deliberate vocal melody on the refrain.
Paging Mr. Proust is as ambitious an album as the Jayhawks have ever made, but there is a stylistic cohesion to the band’s previous efforts that’s not always evident on this one. Though the songwriting is adventurous and the performances assured and occasionally even inspiring, what results is a collection of good songs comprising an album that is somehow less than the sum of its parts.
Listen to a Jayhawks concert from 1995 in the player below.