The Jayhawks’ XOXO is a genuine leather-clad nonsectarian American folk-rock hymnal. The songs stitch together a sampler that harmonises with all the greats: The Byrds, The Beatles, (ex-Byrd) Gene Clark, Big Star, The Kinks, Mason Proffit, Wilco, Uncle Tupelo, The Feelies, and, well, you get the picture. Band members have drifted in and out of the picture, and the band has paused here and there, but they have now pushed the reset button with an album in which, according to main guy Gary Louris, it was “time to open things up”, and, just like Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem, ‘Each And All’ suggests, he “yielded himself to the perfect whole”. As he said in a promo interview, “The Jayhawks are a real band, one where everyone’s equal”.
And that’s what this album does: It sings in four-dimensional clarity. The Who’s album cover for Quadrophenia reflected the “four strong winds” of the band members in the mirrors of Jimmy’s scooter. This album is sort of like that.
So, surprise, surprise, the first song, ‘This Forgotten Town’, plays the always successful Jayhawks’ poker hand of an alt-rock gambler’s fatalistic creed; but(!) the song, opens the whole band throttle as Gary Louris shares lead vocal duties with drummer Tim O’ Reagan. And then Karen Grotberg adds harmony voice at the top end of the tune. It’s all rather impressive. The tune equals anything from Canada’s Blue Rodeo and their Five Days In July album, replete with an ungodly yet still oddly fab guitar solo.
But then, surprise, surprise (again!), the brisk ‘Dogtown Days’ sports a tough Tim O’ Reagan lead vocal. And then, the jaunty Beatlesque ‘Living In A Bubble’, perks the pace with a happy tone that belies a rare bird social commentary from Gary Louris’ songbook. Another brilliant topical GL tune, ‘Homecoming’, is an acoustic gemstone with a tinge of psych colour, a bit of chord progression of The Kinks’ ‘Last Of Steam-Powered Trains’ (which gave a nod toward Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Smokestack Lightening’), a gently hooked chorus, background vocals worthy of those Village Green vibes, and a Dave Davies-like cut to the chase guitar solo. There’s more: ‘Little Victories’ cross-circuits Rubber Soul voices with a CSN guitar bite worthy of ‘Long Time Gone’.
What can I say, what with this near perfect pop-folk-rock mix of late 60’s “good vibrations’ other than, “Chilly, chilly is the evening time and “I am in paradise”; and then the band composed ‘Illuminate’ touches the same pathos as Sir Raymond’s ‘Two Sisters’, before it takes off into John Lennon Land. ‘Bitter Pill’ (also band composed) takes a left turn on a dusty dirt road, sings with steel guitar soul and glorious Everly Brothers harmonies, circa their RCA country albums, Stories We Could Tell and Pass The Chicken And Listen; and once again, I am in ‘Paradise– this time, John Prine style, “before Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away”.
You, know, lots of big names have been dropped here. No criticism intended. The Jayhawks have always played in the big league, but XOXO simply ups their game. As said, this record touches the beautiful root of Americana stuff, and then it provides the canvas for constant rebirth, which if a big deal to the American soul. The Karen Grotberg written bonus track, ‘The Jewel Of The Trimbelle’, proclaims, “I’ve got some wide-open spaces to remind me I’m free”. That line pretty much is a crash course on the literary musings of James Fenimore Cooper and his Leatherstocking Tales.
Oh – speaking of keyboard and vocalist Karen Grotberg, her songs conjure the patient pathos of Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World. ‘Ruby’ is a deep prairie grass gothic piano based tune that recalls the melancholy of late autumn. ‘Across My Field”, again, is earthy, soulful, and it catches the weary breath of (the great) Lucinda Williams in its vocal. These tunes add a deep density to the usual Jayhawks sound.
By the way, the other bonus tracks, ‘Then You Walked Away’ and ‘Hypocrite’s Lament’, both worthy of the album proper, are only available on the initial pressing of the LP and CD. So, consume wisely.
The final songs drip with acoustic purity. The Marc Perlman composed ‘Back To The Farm’ is quiet and sings with ghostly harmonies that recall the beauty of Simon and Garfunkel’s 60’ sound. (Thank you, Karen G for those sublime backing vocals!). And Tim O’ Reagan’s ‘Looking Up Your Number’ is falsetto friendly with a wonderfully starched guitar solo. The tune (sort of) prays itself into the final grooves.
Years ago, The Jayhawks recorded an album called.Blue Earth. Fair enough, it’s a great record. But XOXO digs much deeper into our Earth and its rock ‘n’ roll sediment. It’s a glance into the night’s stars that hover over any farmer’s promised cornfield. You know, good rock music just plugs into some great organic circle, and with Emersonian ‘Each And All’ clarity, it sheds tough skins, and “yields to the perfect whole”, and, yeah, XOXO is a genuine leather clad and well-thumbed America hymnal, but it also just happens to be a truly great folk rock ‘n’ roll record.
Artists’ website: https://www.jayhawksofficial.com/
‘Dogtown Days’ – official video: