By Mark Guarino
The Jayhawks’ trademark blue-eyed soul has never been challenged more than on their new album, “Smile” (Columbia, four stars).
Unlike their past five albums, “Smile” — in stores Tuesday — doesn’t merely mope in melancholia. “Wake up,” leader Gary Louris requests at the album’s start, “put your shoes on/take a breath of the Northern air/and rub those eyes/genuflect beneath the starry skies.”
So begins this gorgeous wake-up call to new days. “Smile” takes its title seriously, but it’s not blind optimism. Underneath each winning chorus (imprinted in your brain after half a listen), there’s insecurity and doubt. “I’ll never be what you want me to be — but that’s alright,” Louris sings before launching into the chorus of “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” sounding at once a confident romantic and a hesitant neurotic.
There are stunning moments on “Smile,” where all you can do is stand back and bask in the craftsmanship. “Every time I see your face/it’s like cool, cool water runnin’ down my back,” the whole band sings on “A Break in the Clouds,” the album’s rootiest alt.country moment. These are rousing emotional highs, and when coupled with lyrical complexity, make “Smile” an album of dizzying highs and lows that sounds more genuine than merely saying be up with people.
Louris attempts some pseudo-spiritual relief — “so beautiful…your cryin’ eyes just like Jesus Christ” (on “Baby, Baby, Baby”) —and many times he sounds reveling in it. Even though the glory of the song “Better Days” is in the past, the regret is very much in the present. “Now I stand in sympathy — not for her but for me,” he croons.
An uplift from the inward-looking psychedelia of 1997’s “Sound of Lies,” “Smile” thrusts its embrace outward. But even though optimism is the anecdote on sale here, the Jayhawks make sure to show it’s difficult, as it is easy, to slap on a happy face.
The band teamed up with producer Bob Ezrin who came in one year after most of the songs were written. He’s responsible for thickening this album’s spine and taking everything up several notches. It shows. Harmony singer and keyboardist Karen Grotberg was never more essential on a Jayhawks record than here. Ezrin — who shaped albums by Alice Cooper, Lou Reed, KISS and Pink Floyd — uses her to not just back up Louris, but as a vocal conscience to whatever he sings.
Ezrin widens the sound and deepens the atmosphere with drum loops, echoes, strings and endless harmonizing that ring out your ears. Like Wilco — the Jayhawks’ alt.country counterpart — the band keeps challenging itself, keeping their American folk and country sensibilities while allowing for some spacey sound dabbling and a rock backbone.
After all, change has been the band’s calling card for some time. Of the five current members, only two were in the band back in 1985. Louris had moved from Toledo, Ohio to Minneapolis to study architecture at the University of Minnesota, where he met Mark Olson and Marc Perlman. Although Olson and Perlman had spearheaded an early version of the Jayhawks, they asked Louris to join after their first show. Their first four albums went through differing line-ups, but cemented the band’s noteworthy harmonies, country rock sensibilities and high and lonesome lyrical musings.
“Blue” remains the band’s best-known song from their 1994 album, “Tomorrow the Green Grass.” But Olson left one year later to join his newlywed wife, songwriter Victoria Williams, in Joshua Tree, Ca., where they continue to live and record independently as the Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers. Louris decided to plow on, recording “Sound of Lies,” a departure sound-wise, for American Recordings in 1997. But when that album was released, the label went under, eventually being bought by Columbia.
The changes haven’t ceased, either. Grotberg, a Jayhawk since 1992, left after recording “Smile” to raise her son full-time. Her replacement is Jen Gunderman, a keyboardist and singer from Raleigh, N.C.
In the midst of all this, Louris played in the alt.country supergroup Golden Smog and was recently married. They have a one-year old son.
All of these ups and downs in the past five years since Olson left are reflected in “Smile.” While the band could have broken up or just retread its past sound, it’s a conscious-sounding effort to keep one eye forward. As Louris said in a recent conversation (see accompanying story), “we’re evolving into a different band. We’re not a better band or worse, we’re just different — different and yet we’re still the Jayhawks.”