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Jayhawks return to their roots on new CD

When Mark Olson, singer and a key songwriter in the Jayhawks, left the band in 1995, the remaining group members tried to use his departure as a chance to reinvent the group.

"I think with Mark leaving it was like a clean slate handed to us," said Gary Louris, who had been the group's other singer and primary songwriter. "Here was an opportunity to really instead of trying to pretend like nothing changed and just quickly put out a record with another guy singing, we said: 'Well, what have we got to lose? Let's show another side of us.'''

That's exactly what the revamped group did. With the core lineup of Louris (vocals/guitar), Marc Perlman (bass), Tim O'Reagan (drums) and Karen Grotberg (keyboards) supplemented by Kraig Johnson (guitar) and Jessy Greene (violin, viola), the new Jayhawks re-emerged in 1997 by moving to a larger, more pop-oriented sound on the CD "Sound of Lies."

The next CD, "Smile," featured a smaller lineup — Greene had left the band — but an even bigger sound. However, with the new CD, "Rainy Day Music," the Jayhawks have re-embraced the more rootsy, acoustic-rooted blend of rock, pop and country that typified the years with Olson.

"Although I say now it may backfire, to me it ("Rainy Day Music") is a little bit of a gift to those fans who've always been loyal to us and sometimes got a little bit confused with some of the twists and turns we took them through and maybe just wanted to hear a record that sounded a little bit more like the old Jayhawks — although we'll never sound exactly like the old Jayhawks because Mark Olson is not here," Louris said.

Louris described the more stripped-down sound of "Rainy Day Music" as a reaction against the more heavily produced, and lusher electric sound of the "Smile" CD.

That critically acclaimed CD was a grand, unabashed pop CD that augmented the basic structures of songs with strings, keyboards and multiple harmonies.

"Any artist, any person, works in cycles, right?" Louris said, justifiably adding that he is proud of the "Smile" CD. "You usually end up coming back to similar places you were at once you get away from them long enough.

"Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and so I think 'Smile' was, well there are many ways to make great records, and (none) is more right than another. But there were times with 'Smile' that I found later because we started playing around with our studio that we built, that we made pretty extensive demos and got into making the sounds. Sometimes it got a little confusing on where the song was (because of) the things we layered,'' he continued.

"So it (the new music) was a combination of wanting to just write a song that sounded great as just that person in a room playing, it was that and a combination of the fact of feeling a bit nostalgic for a rootsier record," Louris said.

And "Rainy Day Music" definitely has its share of winning songs. The tone gets set from the outset with the graceful vocal melody "Stumbling Through the Dark" accompanied by banjo, restrained acoustic and electric guitar and drums.

Other first-rate tracks follow, with "Tailspin" — a tune that evokes the band's Byrds influence — the sweet acoustic ballad "Save It for a Rainy Day," "One Man's Problem" — which combines a grooving verse with a gorgeous chorus melody — and the particularly country-ish ballad "Tampa to Tulsa" being just a few of the highlights.

The sound of the "Rainy Day Songs" isn't the only thing that's stripped back. So is the Jayhawks lineup. Keyboardist Jen Gunderman, who had replaced Grotberg during the "Smile" project, and Johnson both are gone.

Much of the new CD was recorded live in the studio by Louris, Perlman and O'Reagan, with former Long Ryders guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Stephen McCarthy — who since has joined the lineup full time — playing on several of the tracks as well.

Louris said the changes didn't involve major conflicts, and he singled out Gunderman for special praise.

"Musically and even personally there were no grounds for parting ways because her playing was impeccable and she was great," he said.

Instead the issues were practical, especially with Virginian McCarthy coming on board.

That would have meant absorbing the cost and logistical hassles of flying both Gunderman and McCarthy in for shows or rehearsals in the band's home base of Minneapolis. Plus Louris liked the leaner sound that had emerged during the "Rainy Day Music" project.

"It was expensive, and so finally logistics (dictated the lineup change), and also there are times where we didn't want keyboards on every song," Louris said. "There were times when people had a hard time hearing the vocals because there was so much going on (instrumentally). And it was somewhat liberating to feel like there are just four of us, less is more."

The Jayhawks play Friday, Nov. 7, at Mississippi Nights. Tickets for the 9 p.m. show, which also features the Sadies, cost $15.

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