While the quartet of musicians at the heart of The Jayhawks have been together more or less for a quarter of a century, much of the attention around the band’s two breakout albums in the 90’s – “Hollywood Town Hall” and “Tomorrow the Green Grass” – much of the focus centered on the songwriting duo and vocal harmonies of Gary Louris and Mark Olson. When Olson departed, the focus moved quite naturally to Louris, and the band had settled into the stable quartet that included Karen Grotberg on keyboards, original bassist Marc Perlman, and Tim O’Reagan on drums, with everyone adding vocals. Over the course of their 35 year history, they’ve produced 10 albums, rejoined by Olson for the 2011 release, Mokingbird Time, plus 2 albums supporting the former Kinks leader, Ray Davies, Americana in 2017 and Our Country – Americana Act 11 in ’18.
In 2016, The Jayhawks released Paging Mr. Proust, which felt very much like an attempt at a band reboot, bringing in R.E.M.’s Peter Buck along with Tucker Martine to co-produce with Louris, more or less reinventing their unique take on alternative country and rock after 3 decades together. 2018’s Back Roads and Abandoned Motels found the focus still on Louris’ songwriting, but this time recording songs he’d written with and for other artists, like the Dixie Chicks, Jakob Dylan, Ari Hest and others. All of which makes XOXO feel like a bit of departure, as Louris makes room for more creative expressions from his long-time bandmates.
While we’ve heard the voices of Grotberg and O’Reagan before, singing lots of harmonies and the occasional lead, this is the first album where they, together with Perlman sing their own songs, and Louris elicits a greater level of creative collaboration. There’s no doubt that this more inclusive approach impacts the overall sound, bringing more diversity to the band’s signature Americana root, heard most obviously on the two piano focused contributions of Karen Grotberg. “Ruby” is a piano ballad, with only the harmony background vocals from the guys and a slight inclusion of guitar, pedal steel, and drums to include the rest of the band. “Across My Field,” another with that singer/songwriter piano track putting Grotberg front and center, feels closer to the established Jayhawks sound with Louris joining for a richer harmony sound, plus more of a band dynamic. We also hear Grotberg’s piano coming through on the Beatlesque pop of Louris’ “Living in a Bubble,” which explores the endless feedback loops of of modern existence.
The album opens in more familiar Jayhawks territory on “This Forgotten Town,” where Grotberg’s piano has a presence alongside solid acoustic guitar rhythms and full band vocal harmonies on the big chorus hook, with a gritty guitar solo from Louris, and some fine pedal steel playing by guest Stephen McCarthy competing for dominance by the end. Louris shares the lead vocal there with drummer O’Reagan, but it’s all about O’Reagan on “Dogtown Days,” which is pure midwestern rock with big crunchy guitars a la Tom Petty or John Mellencamp, which is fitting giving the shout out to Indiana. Louris’ fitting “Homecoming” and “Bitter Pill” find the band in familiar territory, rich with the soulfulness of their harmonies and bright guitar sounds. “Little Victories,” with Perlman’s swinging bassline and shared harmony leads, Grotberg’s organ fills all points to a bit of a 60’s feel comes through the melody, lyrics and spirit of optimism.
Perlman’s one shot at a lead vocal is “Down to the Farm,” which has folk music roots that even pre-date the 1960, with pristine acoustic guitars. The 12-track album proper closes with O’Reagan singing a pretty acoustic folk song, “Looking Up Your Number,” his bandmates only present for the guitar solo and vocal harmonies. The CD includes 3 bonus tracks, that expand on what we’ve already heard, with Grotberg on piano and vocal for “Jewel of the Trimbelle,” “Then You Walked Away,” another acoustic ballad, and “Hypocrite’s Lament” with Louris and Grotberg singing in harmony. Longtime fans of these players have likely longed to hear more from the other players, and hear more of their contributions in the mix, which have always been part of The Jayhawks sound and feel. XOXO serves up that experience in spades, adding another enjoyable chapter to their catalog.
Key Tracks: “Dogtown Days” / “This Forgotten Town” / “Living In A Bubble”
Artists With Similar Fire: Son Volt / Old 97’s / Joe Henry
-Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb