By DAN MACINTOSH
Accompanying press material for The Jayhawks’ XOXO album highlights its uniquely collaborative nature, as the album features more writing and lead vocals from members Marc Perlman, Karen Groberg and Tim O’Reagan than usual.
The band was smart to make such full use of all its individual talents this time out. Even so, though, most will still always associate The Jayhawks with its most proficient contributor, Gary Louris. He’s not only the voice to most of The Jayhawks’ biggest songs, but also one of the most distinctive vocalists in all of modern rock. Louris’ singing is consistently a quivering, vulnerable delight to the ear. Even though there is slightly less of Louris on XOXO, this subtraction doesn’t hurt the overall quality of the album. It’s decidedly enjoyable, albeit in a slightly different way.
Louris’ best moment comes on “Living In A Bubble.” With Groberg’s plunking, saloon-ish accompanying piano part, Louris sings about today’s oftentimes annoying news cycle overload. Instead of vocalizing over jangling electric guitar – Louris’ most familiar musical arrangement position – he sings atop a slightly swinging groove. It’s refreshing to hear Louris changing up his modus operandi. This one is followed by “Ruby,” a track where Groberg accompanies herself on piano. And oh, how good it is to hear this much acoustic piano on an album! This recording also features steel guitar and lovely layered backing vocals.
One song that is more within The Jayhawks’ regular wheelhouse is titled “Bitter Pill.” It features a twangy country feel worthy of heyday The Flying Burrito Brothers. Lyrically, it also travels familiar territory, describing a woebegone character living with her regrets. This poor soul is unable to leave her past behind, no matter where she goes. “Little Victories,” with its ominous organ, distinctive bass line and stinging electric guitar fills, also nicely treads Jayhawks territory we’ve grown to love.
The Jayhawks sometimes get categorized as a country group, and then other times, called power-pop. The truth is that this act is each of these genres (and a few others) at once. For a band that got its start back in the 80s – and at a time before Americana was even a genre distinction – The Jayhawks is a band that has remained consistently good. Back at the start, the group was a two-headed beast, if you will, featuring pair of strong songwriters, Gary Louris and Mark Olson. Ten years in, Olson left the group, a blow that would have killed lesser acts. Surprisingly, the group only got better after Olson’s departure, releasing perhaps its best album, Rainy Day Music, in 2003.
This album’s title represents teenage girl shorthand for signing letters — with hugs and kisses. The album cover even features a 1950s teen girl sitting and listening to records. This picture illustrates many of the girls The Jayhawks sing about in songs. However, she’s more of a vintage teen, rather than a contemporary one, with a big bouffant hairdo. Again, this latest effort it filled with heartwarming musical sentiments. It’s sure to make both girls and boys feel especially good and bring comfort to almost anyone that gives it a chance.