Friday, October 16, 2009

"Already Classics" Presents: The Jayhawks' Tomorrow the Green Grass

Its modest success in 1995 may have it pegged as a lost classic by many, but Tomorrow the Green Grass was well received and recognized enough to be loved by thousands over the years anyway. THe album deserves its place in a pantheon of great albums (though not my top 200, so it probably fits into my top 500 if I ever wrote that out!). If anyone ever wants to hear what Gram Parsons reincarnated sounds like, take a listen to the Jayhawks of the Olson-Louris era. Formed in 1986, the Jayhawks consisted of several members over the years- mainly drummers, of which they've gone through five- but the only permanent ones until its 2005 hiatus were guitarist, writer and lead vocalist Gary Louris and bassist Marc Perlman. Louris was already 31 by the time the group formed, a veteran of rockabilly groups since emigrating from his native Ohio. The Jayhawks' prime found a dual leadership role invested in Mark Olson, the more country-minded of the two. The group's indie label debut LP in 1989, Blue Earth, hinted that these were more than the average alt-country rockers and showed that such groups could come from a non-country twangin' locality like Minneapolis. It won them a deal with Def American a couple years down the road when George Drakoulias, an A&R man for the label, took a liking to them. Their 1992 sophomore release, Hollywood Town Hall, to me was a near-classic, hailed by some as a classic outright. Combining the harder edge of Neil Young or the Exile-era Rolling Stones with a bit of the country diehard outlaws like Parsons, Joe Ely, Guy Clark or Waylon Jennings, the Jayhawks were a fascinating act to follow. They had a short-lived prime that still provided several memories.

Hollywood Town Hall was one momentous occasion, but it was improved by a Drakoulias-produced followup that turned out to be the last one with Mark Olson- who left shortly after to care for his ailing wife, singer-songwriter Victoria Williams, when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. That followup, Tomorrow the Green Grass, saw the Jayhawks with Don Heffington on drums, to be replaced by Tim O'Regan for the following tour. As well, they racked on a keyboardist and backing vocalist in Karen Grotberg. The Olson-Louris partnership was at its peak and unfortunately never got a chance to prove there was more in the storage chambers to come. The locked-in harmonies are ever-present on this album, while the guitars often are made to be fuzzy and overloaded with distortion not unlike Neil Young & Crazy Horse. Their acoustic, close-harmonied sweetness is given spare treatment on some tracks but several others build a dense collage of sound around it. The lead cut and single "Blue" features strings that are delicate and never intrusive, scored by Paul Buckmaster (whom Elton John fans are very familiar with for his string charts on early 70s albums by Elton). Meanwhile, Olson and Louris duet gloriously and "Blue" has four separate melodic ideas, verse-coda-chorus-bridge (the latter of which has counterpointing vocal melodies). "Blue" is perhaps bettered by the second cut, a tale of love on the run and its pleasures in abandoning all good sense, "I'd Run Away." Also featuring strings, it is a bit quicker paced but with a rousing, orchestrally geared intro before going into the uplifting verse and chorus. Louris is the one primarily found on lead vocals but Olson and Grotberg step in from time to time. Wisely, the fiddle-chugging intro section is repeated to end the song. This sunny harmony-laden song isn't shy about bending to the rock side a bit more with searing guitar lead to coarsen it up a bit. "Miss Williams' Guitar" is a happy-go-lucky little rocker that Olson penned about becoming smitten with his then wife.

"Two Hearts" is the intimate side of the Jayhawks, taking away the backbeat for a little homestyle beauty. It's a lovely state of affairs, being the one track that strips away the popping drums and power chords. But there are other ballads, such as the weepy, violin-adorned "Over My Shoulder," right up the Gram Parsons alley for sure.

"Real Light" hauls out the heavily distorted guitar atmosphere and is a mesmerizing tune with a whipping arrangement indeed. Olson and Louris are in step with each other while the drums, piano and organ supply a lot toward the urgency of the song. Organ is provided by Benmont Tench and "Real Light" is not unlike the rock punch of his group, Tom Petty's Heartbreakers. The Jayhawks surprisingly find alt-country joy in the much derided Grand Funk Railroad (to put it short, a cliche-ridden, trashy, not too remarkable power trio if the early 70s that was wildly popular and maybe only had one true classic single with the Todd Rundgren produced "We're an American Band") by covering their "Bad Time." The Jayhawks make "Bad Time" an invigorating listen and a surprise highlight for the album. The more eased, laid back country-rock is better represented by the second half, starting with "See Him on the Street" and continued by the twangy "Ann Jane" and "Red's Song," which features Victoria Williams on backing vocal. "Pray for Me" is another stirring moment and one of the top three tracks from the album, the extremely catchy and spirited "Nothing Left to Borrow," which gives "I'd Run Away" a run(away) for its money in terms of how busy and bustling it is. Like that song, it contains an intro section of sorts with guitar providing more melody than the usual for Tomorrow the Green Grass. Louris sings several lines on his own but the song is greatly boosted whenever Olson chimes in for his high harmony. "Ten Little Kids" closes the album, again with Williams harmonizing, although on one of the less than stellar offerings from Tomorrow the Green Grass, a somewhat overlooked album that should be regarded as a little bit of retro brilliance from the 90s. And that's my two cents on it, so go see what all my fuss is about.

No comments:

Post a Comment