The Jayhawks eschew their roots-music roots for a poppier and rockier direction.

The Jayhawks
Columbia/American Recordings

While the group's No Depression contemporaries, Son Volt and Wilco, have received more attention, many consider Minnesota's underappreciated Jayhawks the Americana genre's best band. Its Hollywood Town Hall made several major "Best of '90s" lists and its follow-up, Tomorrow the Green Grass, proved just as solid. But after the 1995 departure of co-founder Mark Olson (who, with Gary Louris, provided half of the band's crucial trademark harmonies), the Jayhawks sputtered with the disappointing and somber Sound of Lies, which sounded more like a gram of coke than Gram Parsons.

With Smile, the band scores a glorious comeback by (surprisingly) straying even further from its country-rock roots. With unlikely superproducer Bob Ezrin (Alice Cooper, Pink Floyd, KISS) at the knobs, and with a slightly altered studio lineup, the Jayhawks have produced a heavily pop-influenced gem, combining a newfound skill for melody with enough churning electric guitar work to make the band seem entirely fresh. Hell, there's even whistling on this thing.

Head bird Louris wisely avoids the heavily double-tracked vocals that marred Lies (an obvious attempt to duplicate Olson's contributions), and instead favors the co-vocals of (since departed) keyboardist Karen Grotberg. "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me" is radio-friendly in the best sense, while "Life Floats By" begins in poppy contemplation, then easily segues into an effects-laden guitar romp. "Pretty Thing" also displays a rock edge; same goes for the psychedelic "Somewhere in Ohio." The band hasn't completely abandoned folkie country ("Break in the Clouds," the beautiful "What Led Me to This Town"), but the intriguing car-crash epic, the boogie-fueled "Baby, Baby, Baby," perhaps indicates the band's next direction.

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The Jayhawks are indeed a new breed of bird on Smile. -- Bob Ruggiero

The Mighty Mighty Bosstones
Pay Attention

A few years back, when the Mighty Mighty Bosstones appeared on the KISS tribute record, Kiss My Ass, the pairing seemed so incongruous as to be silly. The Boston band's cover of "Detroit Rock City" worked all right, with horns amusingly taking the place of Ace Frehley's and Paul Stanley's guitars, but still it felt like gimmickry and fueled the suspicion that the Bosstones made the cut only because the group was, at the time, a labelmate of KISS's. Those doubts should evaporate with Pay Attention, the Mighty Ones' latest, in which the KISS connection becomes a bit more explicit.

A cocktail-jazz beat opens things, and ambient party noises filter in, setting a cinematic atmosphere, just as KISS did when "Detroit Rock City" launched its arguably best album, Destroyer, back in the '70s. The party vibe continues until the band snaps to attention with power chords and driving drums; by the time singer Dicky Barrett snarls the chorus of the tune "Let Me Be," a truth becomes clear: When he wants to, Barrett can sound like a dragon rudely awakened from a sound slumber, coming off like more of a raging thunder lizard than even Gene Simmons these days.

When he wants to, that is. One of the most satisfying surprises on Pay Attention is that Barrett seems to have learned how to sing. Maybe he cut down on what must have been a 17-pack-a-day habit, or maybe it's some type of sophisticated studio trickery. Whatever the reason, Barrett's growth as a vocalist is truly impressive. Also impressive is the Bosstones' new confidence as songwriters. Sure, there are a few naked attempts to replicate the magic that made 1997's "Impression That I Get" a breakthrough smash, but it's hard to blame a band for that. Besides, such shameless calculations pale next to tracks like "Riot on Broad Street," with its martial snare and pennywhistle that evoke ghosts of the Revolutionary War; "Bad News and Bad Breaks," which sums up Barrett's worldview with the words "There's always something that can set you back / That's the way life is"; and most of all, the heartbreaking closing song, "The Day He Didn't Die" ("I really miss him / He would have loved this / I hope he can hear me").

Pay Attention is often as blunt as its all-too-apt title: The command is damn impossible to ignore as the record rolls along. -- Sean O'Neill

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