Jayhawks shine with new pop album Smile
Scene Music Critic
Originally formed 15 years ago, Smile is the sixth album from the Minnesota-based Jayhawks, and the second since the departure of co-founder Marc Olson. Early albums such as Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow, the Green Grass displayed a country tinged sound with heavy influences by such artists as Neil Young and Steve Earle, and a style that was dubbed as alternative-country long before the term was even being used as a distinct genre. But with the mid 90s departure of Olson to record with his wife Victoria Williams as the more folky sounding Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers, the subsequent album, 1997’s somewhat patchy Sound of Lies began a move away from the folk/country sounds of the earlier albums and toward a more pop orientated sound. Smile continues this move, if not completing the journey.
This is not to say that country sounds are entirely absent from Simle. “Broken Harpoon” and “A Break in the Clouds” in particular would could have easily been found on earlier albums. But overall, under the leadership of the remaining co-founder and principle songwriter Gary Louris, the band has obviously been working hard mixing together such influences as later-era Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Big Star to form an extremely catchy and very up-beat collection of songs. Huge choruses, a collection of hooks to die for and a strong set of tunes make this one of the best albums of the year so far, and one that should constantly be residing in any music lover’s CD changer.
Standout cuts include the opener and title track “Smile,” which displays the most obvious Beatles influence of the album, particularly in the vocals on the chorus as well as having a wonderful string section. The whole track just builds and builds from its initial guitar and piano intro to an epic finish. “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” kicks with a lone mandolin on the intro, but soon is soon transformed by a wonderful sing-along chorus that continues to display the seminal influence that the 70s band Big Star still holds on many of today’s songwriters. And although many of the influences of this album are bands from the late 60s and early 70s, it should be pointed out that the album does not at all sound dated.
Other standout songs include the rockier “Life Floats By” and “Pretty Thing,” and the sublime ballads “What Led Me to this Town” and “Mr. Wilson.” But generally, the entire album stands up well to repeated listening and will most likely have anyone who buys the album quickly finding themselves singing along with the verses.
There are, however, one or two negative points to Smile, particularly relating to the work of producer Bob Ezrin. A couple of the songs are just simply over produced, and the multi-tracking of instruments and vocals is somewhat excessive on several tracks. In addition the two weakest songs on the album bear Ezrins name in the writing credits, and it makes one wish at times that the producer had been kept on a tighter leash. Also the drum loops on a couple of the songs, although giving rise to a more modern sound, manage at the same time to seem a bit superfluous and out of place. A great deal of the criticism of this album by the rest of the musical press has contained accusations of selling out, but listening to both Simle and the previous album, as well as Mark Olson’s post Jayhawks output, makes it obvious where the majority of the country influences were coming from. On the other hand, Gary Louris, like other artists such as Jeff Tweedy of Wilco and Matthew Sweet, clearly just knows how to write a great and catchy pop song.
Ultimately, it is these songs that shine through and give the album a great collection of up-beat tracks that should bring a smile to the stoniest of faces.
And for those fans who do pick up this album, be sure to check out Weird Tales by Golden Smog, a colaboration formed by members of the Jayhawks, Wilco, Soul Asylum and Big Star that also contains a stand-out set of similar guitar driven pop tunes and is well worth checking out.
Although Smile was released several months ago, the band has just been announced as the support act for the upcoming Matchbox 20 concert at the Joyce Center.
All Scene Stories for Tuesday, September 5, 2000