Inquiring Minds

The Jayhawks Soar Back Into Houston, Paging Mr. Proust

They initially come to prominence under the alt-country/No Depression banner in the mid ‘90s. But no listener to the whole discography of the Minnesota-bred Jayhawks could ever accuse them of sticking to any single genre. Their latest effort, Paging Mr. Proust, actually manages to straddle a very fine line: Parts of it sound like everything they’ve done before, and parts of it sound like nothing ever attempted previously.

“I didn't think it would be a Jayhawks record when I started writing it. We were kind of put in a box early on [as alt-country], but I grew up listening to everything but roots and traditional music. That came later in life, and only briefly,” says singer/guitarist Gary Louris.

“I’m much more intrigued by synth and drum music or prog. This time, I was able to explore sounds more freely, and I wanted to expand our palette. We didn’t have any goal, though. It’s not like we had a big PowerPoint presentation about it before we went into the studio.”

The Jayhawks were formed in 1985, coming onto most people’s radar with their releases Hollywood Town Hall (1992) and Tomorrow the Green Grass (1995). Their key calling card came in the songwriting and incredibly tight dual harmonies of Louris and co-leader/vocalist/guitarist Mark Olson. As they endured lineup changes following Olson’s 1995 departure, the Jayhawks experimented with rock (Sound of Lies), pop (Smile) and then back to Americana (Rainy Day Music). And while Tomorrow’s single “Blue” was the closest thing they’ve had to a hit, wider success eluded them.

Stylistically, Paging Mr. Proust is all over the musical spectrum. There’s roots/country (“Quiet Corners & Empty Spaces,” “Isabel’s Daughter”), sunshine pop (“Lovers of the Sun,” “Leaving the Monsters Behind”), ghostly tunes (“Lost the Summer,” “Pretty Roses in Her Hair”) and rockers (“The Devil is in Her Eyes,” “The Dust of Long-Dead Stars”).

Many of the tunes focus on romantic relationships, albeit ones that are neither dead nor thriving. The lyrics here firmly place them on a teetering edge that can go either way, with an overall sense of ennui. Louris says that a lot of songs are about “longing,” and that a lot of him is in there.

“I’ve certainly created enough [relationship] chaos in my life to draw from. And I’m at a good spot in my life right now, but that doesn't mean I’m going to write a bunch of happy songs,” he offers. “I’m the Maestro of Melancholy. I’m the kind of guy who finds the tunnel at the end of the light. So the songs have a lot of hopeful desperation.”

One track, “Ace,” stands apart from anything else the band has ever produced. With minimal lyrics and long instrumental passages of distorted guitar, feedback and repeating synth beats, it’s practically Krautrock.

“That’s the song that’s kind of a separator, a litmus test! You either like it or you hate it. And when we play it live, some people are confused. And that’s the time that they go get a beer!” Louris laughs. “But I like bands like Beck and Wilco where it’s hard to figure out exactly what they’re going to do next. I like to think the Jayhawks can do that as well.”

Liner note readers will see the band thank manager Jake Guralnick. If the last name sounds familiar, that's because he's the son of legendary music scribe Peter Guralnick. The record was co-produced by Louris, Tucker Martine and R.E.M guitarist Peter Buck. Buck also contributed some playing, as did R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills. Asked what extra perception Buck brought to the table as a musician, Louris speaks of balance.

“For Peter, vibe would trump perfection. He was the voice of reason when we wanted to fix things or keep going and beat a dead horse, because the computer world is a dangerous rabbit hole!” Louris says. “He would say, ‘It’s done; let’s move on.’ If it were up to him, we would have made the record in six days. With Tucker and myself, it would have been two months. As it ended up, it took about six weeks.”

The band’s current lineup includes original members Louris (vocals/guitar) and Marc Perlman (bass), along with longtime players Tim O’Reagan (drums/vocals) and Karen Grotberg (keyboards/vocals). Former member Kraig Johnson played guitar on the record, but has since been permanently replaced with multi-instrumentalist Chet Lyster (who also plays with Eels). Lyster was recommended to Louris by one of the road managers for Wilco.

Grotberg’s utterly distinctive and ethereal backing vocals have been an integral part of all the Jayhawks records she has been on, and for Paging Mr. Proust, she is more apparent than ever before. Louris says that was definitely part of his plan, along with giving O’Reagan’s voice more prominence. He hints that the next Jayhawks record may even feature one or both as lead singer on some tracks.

Subject-wise, the narrator of Proust’s “Lies in Black and White” spews vitriolic hate and disdain after reading a newspaper story in which someone he knows is interviewed. With lines like “Your words are twisted bitter/You duplicitous quitter” and talk of “false accusations” and “hate in tow,” it’s hard for the listener not to assume he is being directed toward Louris's former partner.

Mark Olson’s 2011 reunion album with the band, Mockingbird Time, and subsequent tour ended in bitterness and acrimony.

Louris denies that it's strictly about his former partner and told the Associated Press, “My songs tend to be about multiple people.” Olson offered a more blunt brickbat to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune: “I don’t ever want to see Gary Louris again, nor do I want him singing my songs.”

Louris plans on continuing the Jayhawks' lengthy current tour, then working on both a solo and another band record, while trying to fit in some producing for other acts. Now happening at Rockefeller Hall, Saturday's show was originally booked into the historic Heights Theater, which is still undergoing renovations and plans to open next month. The band has been here many times over the years, but it’s a pre-Jayhawks gig in the city that Louris remembers most.

“I remember in the ’80s I came there with my rockabilly band, Safety Last, to a place called Fitzgerald’s. I remember that place well!” he laughs. “We played with Johnny Reno and the Sax Maniacs!”

There was also a famous 1992 gig at the Sam Houston Coliseum (dubbed “High in Houston”) where the Jayhawks opened for the Black Crowes for a free show that was broadcast on radio. Both bands were labelmates on Def American at the time.

“We did a lot of shows with the Crowes. They really took us under their wing,” Louris says – though the self-described “Master of Melancholy” was seemingly unaware he made a triple avian funny.

Promoted by the Heights Theater, the Jayhawks and special guests Folk Uke perform 8 p.m. Saturday, October 29 at Rockefeller Hall, 3620 Washington. This show is sold out.
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero