The Jayhawks

The Jayhawks – Back Roads And Abandoned Motels
by Wesley Stace (2018)

Attempts to pigeonhole The Jayhawks have long been fruitless, as any longtime fan or fellow musician knows. The band habitually transcends any label - Americana, Roots Rock, or Alt-Country: you name it - with great songs, musical adventure and sheer derring-do.

Back Roads and Abandoned Motels, the latest addition to the band's varied catalog, is both a case in point and the exception that proves the rule. The record serves only to emphasize the band's pedigree, when by rights it might have been something of a mongrel, given that it largely consists of songs written with (and for) other artists, here in versions recorded for the record by the band. Both title and backstory belie the canny conceptual unity of a record that Jayhawks fans, both more recent converts and those with longer memories, will love. You wouldn’t want to call it Hollywood Town Hall Part Two, but then again... perhaps you would.

There are presumably some listeners who wanted Los Lobos to keep making Will The Wolf Survive? (or, heaven knows, La Bamba) over and over again, for the rest of their careers. Perhaps there were even fans who thought the Beatles let themselves down with the experimental Peppers shit and shouldn’t have ventured beyond the day trippiness of Day Tripper. The Jayhawks’ more outre explorations have met with commercial and critical success - last year’s excellent Paging Mr Proust was proof that there was no intention to go gently into that good night - but there still doubtless remains the occasional Jayhawks fan who wishes they’d stop being clever and make a primarily acoustic country-rock classic again. It’s a rather tedious nostalgia, given the joy the Jayhawks always bring, not to mention the fact that the band has existed in its current line-up for 24 years since they originally parted ways with Mark Olson. The point being: the Jayhawks did those things already back then; they don’t need to keep doing them because we liked it a lot: that’s not how artists work.

But the amazing news about the new album is the unlikeliest news of all: that’s exactly what they’ve done, and in the strangest of ways. A saner man, or even a regular rock critic, might go so far as to call Back Roads and Abandoned Motels “a return to the more acoustic sound of Rainy Day Music,” but the fact is, whatever the reason, the record showcases the band we’ve always loved.

It’s all here: those sweet sweet harmonies, the devil-may-care roots rock, the effortless melodies you can’t believe you haven’t heard before (if you’re a listener) or were too lazy to write yourself (if you’re a songwriter), and those sinewy, beautiful constructed solos that make Gary Louris one of the most underrated guitarists in rock (and roll), and the Jayhawks one of the archetypal American bands. Since Paging Mr Proust, the band has in fact been staking its claim as the greatest backing band in the world, working with the likes of Sir Ray Davies, and the less-knighted but critically revered Wesley Stace AKA John Wesley Harding (and it would be a conflict of interest if I didn’t mention that I were he.) It’s always good to try on someone else’s clothes, see what fits. And that’s what’s happening on this record too.

Far from being, in terms of The Who, a record of odds ’n’ sods, the disparate origins of the songs on display have brought the band, road-tested and barely-rested, closer than ever. They sound totally relaxed and utterly confident in their ability to deliver the goods. They’ve never sounded better, and we’ve never heard a fairer division of labor among the members.

Of the songs on the new record, only two (the last two, Carry You To Safety and Leaving Detroit) were newly written. Others were written with, and for, other artists, bespoke and besung. Gary Louris is a great songwriter whatever the context, and here we find him confident enough to stand back, to share the lead vocals around his fellow singing members, just as those songs were always meant to be sung by others. (Only Marc Perlman, the secret weapon on bass, doesn’t get his own song. Next time, I hope.) All members are of equal value and status, like a band, but, like The Band, you don’t get to be this good without that being true. Here, in the words of Everybody Knows, they’re "stepping out" for the first time.

The harmonies have always been a wonder, an essential part of the Jayhawks experience, but here we get to appreciate their component parts individually. Thus it is that the album boldly goes where no Jayhawks album has gone before, kicking off with keyboard player Karen Grotberg’s first lead vocal. Come Cryin’ To Me was originally written for the Dixie Chicks, their first collaboration with Gary (though it only appeared on Natalie Maines’ solo album Mother), but it sounds like it was written specifically for Karen to sing on this particular record, and it’s a joy, as is her later lead vocal, El Dorado, and her harmonies throughout.

But if it’s Mr Louris you’ve come to hear - and it may well be! - he’s to the fore throughout and up next with another Dixie Chicks associated song that first appeared on their Taking The Long Way album in 2006, since often heard at Louris solo concerts. It’s a statement-of-purpose song, yet, given its co-written origins, the listener can’t necessarily be sure (and I’m too polite to ask) whose statement-of-purpose it actually is. Who’s stepping out? The Dixie Chicks or Mr Louris? Part of the joy of Back Roads and Abandoned Motels is the middle-place that these songs occupy, the universality of their lyrics - they’re kinda covers, they’re kinda not - which frees the band up to play them without self-consciousness, the reason that experimentation can be put to one side. There are some songs to deliver, and many of them have been previously delivered, so best just to allow them to sound as great as a great band possibly can. Which is pretty great. It’s that that makes the record such a familiar and beautiful Jayhawks experience, like those early records, yet played by the band as it is now, with all its know how and experience.

Tim O’Reagan (more commonly known as ‘the drummer’) has sung three or four memorable lead vocals on Jayhawks records previously, songs often played live (Tampa to Tulsa, for example, and Bottomless Cup) but his singing on the stellar Jakob Dylan co-write, Gonna Be A Darkness, makes the song an instant Jayhawks classic, better even than its original version (though it’s not a competition, obviously) which was recorded for the HBO series True Blood. I shan’t list all the songs, though there are co-writes with Carrie Rodriguez, Emerson Hart (from Tonic), Ari Hest, Kristen Hall and The Wild Feathers. None with me, however. Interesting.

In 2018, 34 years after they formed, and 24 years in their current line-up, The Jayhawks are still coming up with new ways to give us everything beautiful. Back Roads and Abandoned Motels is an unexpected and vital corner piece in their puzzle, and it fits together perfectly. May their songs always be sung.

“We are the elders of our minds,” sings Sean Rowe on “Gas Station Rose,” the track that ushers in his fourth album, New Lore, with plaintive plucks of guitar and steady drips of piano that fall in like rain. It’s a sparse and beautiful moment, anchored by Rowe’s unparalleled voice – so full of gravely soul, aged and edged by years on the road, as a father and husband, as a creative force always looking for the next rhyme. And, so integral to the man that he is, one that is constantly absorbing nature. It wasn’t the easiest journey to get to the ten vulnerable songs that comprise New Lore (out April 7th care of Anti-) – it took a label change, a trip to Memphis and some support from unexpected places – but what resulted is a roadmap for a gentle heart in modern times, in a world where the best oracle isn’t within a computer, but within ourselves.

Though Rowe has often made his hometown of Troy, New York and its surrounding areas his creative base, New Lore brought a new environment, and a new producer. Appropriate to his love of folk-blues legends like Howlin’ Wolf, he ventured to Sam Phillips Recording studio in Memphis to work with Matt Ross-Spang (Jason Isbell, Margo Price). They tapped into the history of the legendary space to hone a sound that is at once rich and stark, putting Rowe’s deep and dynamic rage at the forefront. Because if high notes can shatter windows, Rowe’s low and guttural ones can meld sand into glass.

“I was looking for a specific sound and part of that was the rawness, the element of risk that Sam Phillips took with his artists,” Rowe says. “Since I was a kid I was really drawn to that music. I wasn’t really listening to music my peers were: I was really into old soul music, and music coming out of Memphis. It’s been in my work maybe in more subtle ways than now, but it’s always been in there.”

The songs on New Lore were often built to let Rowe’s voice come through in its most stirring capacity: from the wrenching ode to parenthood “I’ll Follow Your Trail” to the naturalistic “The Very First Snow,” instrumentals are layered carefully and artfully over the vocals, finding footing in Rowe’s sly and idiosyncratic guitar style. Much of what came was a result of Rowe going into the studio with a more relaxed approach – no preproduction was done, no demos finished. Rowe and Ross-Spang embraced an organic style that is so representative of how the singer-songwriter leads his life, and that is one of always fighting to flow gently with the earth, not against it.

“We were looking for perfect imperfection,” Rowe says. “If we fucked up and it was cool, then I wanted that in there. You let it happen and you don’t polish it too much.”

New Lore also ushered in a career shift – this time, after several years on Anti-, Rowe launched his own label, Three Rivers Records, and will release his LP as a collaboration with the Anti- family. He also embraced a new way of funding his work, using a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign to make the Memphis dreams a reality, and embarked on a series of house shows to reconnect with his fans at the most basic, intimate level.

“I kept asking myself, ‘What would be cool? What would be something different?,'” Rowe says. “That’s what led me to house shows, and to the Kickstarter and to just take chances. Those chances are what led me to early rock and roll in the first place – that’s all about taking chances. I had no idea what to expect, but I could tell as it got more momentum that people really wanted to see it happen.”

Rowe also found himself on another unexpected wave – his unreleased song “To Leave Something Behind” found life in Ben Affleck’s film The Accountant, exposing the mystique of his music to an even wider audience. Written five years ago in London, it echoes some of the themes that half a decade later surfaced again in New Lore: the things in life we pass down to our children, the ideas we learn from our elders, the shadows we leave behind when we are gone. The first single, “Gas Station Rose,” is about two people trying to navigate that together. “That’s the conflict to the story,” Rowe says. “They want to stick it out, but they know it’s incredibly hard to keep shit together. Conflict makes for a great song.”

So does opening yourself up to vulnerability: New Lore is formed from that tenderness, exposed like an open wound but one asking for healing, not to linger in pain. Like “Promise of You,” with a gospel swing inspired by Ketty Lester’s classic “Love Letters” and the piano-driven “I Can’t Make a Living From Holding You,” Rowe speaks to the reality of loving and leaving, a constant dilemma for a man who builds half of himself on tour playing to strangers and half of himself tucking his children in at night. Home is process, not a destination, and New Lore is a roadmap there – perfectly imperfect, raw and real.

“My music isn’t glossy or shiny,” Rowe says. “But it’s true.”



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