With resplendent melodicism and bold reinvention, The Jayhawks’ new album confirms the band is still in top form

The longtime band just released its ninth record, the enthralling "Paging Mr. Proust."

click to enlarge Veteran Minneapolis band The Jayhawks continue to show their evolution on "Paging Mr. Proust." - Photo: Provided
Photo: Provided
Veteran Minneapolis band The Jayhawks continue to show their evolution on "Paging Mr. Proust."
What are the expectations of a band three decades into a music career infused with Pop hooks, Rock classicism and understated tenacity? The Rock & Roll blueprint would suggest features like dealing with the ecstasy and toll of relentless road work, inevitable breakups, intermittent reunions and substance abuse issues, but also the will to keep on keeping on and somehow producing some career-best music.

Behold The Jayhawks.

The longtime Minneapolis band, formed in the mid-’80s and often acknowledged as one of the godfathers of AltCountry — for whatever that’s worth (less than you might think) — just released its ninth record, the enthralling Paging Mr. Proust, an exuberant echo of past glories swirling in fresh sonic textures that dip into new genres, with hints of Krautrock and looped, synth Electronica, along with their more familiar Pop Rock. Co-produced by Peter Buck of R.E.M. and Tucker Martine, Paging Mr. Proust stands as one of the best records of 2016.

On their current tour, the band spends two hours lifting singer/guitarist Gary Louris’ bittersweet Pop nuggets with Rickenbacker-driven crescendos, playing songs that should have been bigger “hit” contenders in a better world. They play Minnesotan twang-and-crunch classics from 1992’s Hollywood Town Hall, like “Waiting for the Sun,” which put The Jayhawks on the Roots map in the early ’90s, to a heartfelt encore singalong of Grand Funk Railroad’s “Bad Time.” And they play the Beatlesque soul-swoon testifying of “Trouble” from 1997’s Sound of Lies, the first album without cofounder/singer/songwriter Mark Olson and still possibly their best — a psychedelic dream of disillusion awash in jaded poetry and majestic chords stacked sky-high with melancholy. 

In speaking by phone with cofounder Louris, now the main songwriter and lead singer/guitarist of the band, from his Minneapolis home, he sounds relieved to have survived the last decade of personal and professional upheaval with his band’s support intact. 

“At this time in my life I needed structure in a band with these particular people,” he says. “I think going through the stuff I went through — like rehab — you find a new appreciation for things you have, instead of always thinking of what you don’t have. I realized this band is fantastic and they’re my home.”

Between releasing solo records, songwriting for Dixie Chicks and Nickel Creek and producing records for bands like The Sadies, Louris consistently delivers with his veteran’s grace and distinctive sound. The Jayhawks are his first love, and there’s an inherent pride in his voice as he discusses Paging Mr. Proust.

Isn’t it just like The Jayhawks to name their new project after a brilliant but anachronistic 19th-century French author hardly read in today’s comics-literate America? In fact, the whole record shines with literary references, subtle but evident, imbuing nuance and depth to a master songwriter’s craft. Blue guitars foretell remembrances of things past. 

“The Proust reference came from a friend of mine who knew our material,” Louris says, “and she’d been traveling and happened to be in the Amsterdam airport and says she heard Marcel Proust being paged.  I’ve since read his stuff, and there’s a thread between John Updike, David Foster Wallace and Proust — writers I admire — who dig deep, uncovering details you would never see if you just skimmed along the surface. I think that became part of the concept of the record, after some reflection that the world has kind of lost its thread.”

Proust, after all, like the best literature and music, demands an attention span, something we’ve largely lost through our dopamine addiction to gadgets. It’s easy to make the analogy with The Jayhawks’ music, a vintage band too often neglected by commercial concerns. Like many pioneer bands — Big Star, The Velvet Underground, Uncle Tupelo — The Jayhawks’ influence trumps record sales by far. 

“I’ve come to the acceptance that we’re a cult band and probably always will be, which means we have just enough fans to keep us going,” Louris says. “It seems like the people who love us really love us, and other people don’t know who the hell we are.”

“I always felt like we would be huge if it was 1970,” he continues. “I am drawn to a certain song structure, a certain sort of melody scale used in older music. An uplifting sound with money chords, chords that turn your head a bit, but mixing the triumphant with somewhat darker lyrics is the right chemistry. I like to do a song that is somewhat cathartic and allows you to purge a little bit, so you walk away feeling better instead of worse.”

Incandescent, lush harmonies still ring out through Louris’ new tunes. Keyboardist Karen Grotberg’s and drummer Tim O’Reagan’s elegant vocals shade Louris’ voice on the anthemic album opener, “Quiet Corners and Empty Spaces.” Cofounder Marc Perlman’s bass ripples melodic lines to open the plaintive “Lies in Black and White,” while Louris’ Neil Young-like ragged guitar coda closes “Devil in Her Eyes.” “Comeback Kids,” a loping electronic mantra, tumbles out like some infectious, Art Rock overture, all dissonant lead guitar and synth-swirl bliss.

With Olson’s embittered exit once again after 2011’s uneven Mockingbird Time reunion, The Jayhawks left behind some of their twangier, Roots-driven style. 

“We felt we could explore some other territory,” Louris says. “I mean, none of us grew up in the country, and I never listened to Country music till my mid-20s. I was in this British cover band and listened to The Buzzcocks, The Vibrators, Bowie, The Kinks and The Beatles… before I got into Elvis’ Sun Sessions.”  

This band cut its teeth in the competitive Minneapolis scene back in the ’80s, one of America’s greatest Indie music cities. “The Jayhawks tapped into a period where Olson and I both came upon all this American music,” Louris says. “What was going on in our city with The Replacements and Hüsker Dü, we loved that stuff, but we defined our own little pocket and found our own voice. But it was always a little restricting.”

The Jayhawks embody a Midwestern band that is still somehow deep in its prime. Undersung or not, the group has been simply one of America’s finest for decades now. Paging Mr. Proust, with its resplendent Pop melodicism and bold reinvention, just confirms it yet again.

THE JAYHAWKS play Madison Theater on Tuesday. Tickets/more info: madisontheateronline.com.

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