With the surprising (but exciting!) announcement of The Jayhawks reunion and the release of their new anthology, I’m reminded of how much I love Smile, a work of sheer beauty that is aptly named because it always brings one to my face. Here’s my original review of this classic from May 2000 in Consumable Online…
Brian Wilson fans, fear not. Despite the record’s title (and a track titled “Mr. Wilson”), The Jayhawks are not trying to usurp your leader or ride his coattails. And for god sakes, naming a record Smile is not blasphemous, although it may have taken balls to do so. Allow me to prescribe this simple task. Listen to the title track – the opening cut on this record – and get swept up in its irresistible, anthemic chorus. Smile? Try not to.
“I love what we used to be, but I’m interested in where else we can go”, Gary Louris is quoted in the band’s bio. And in fifteen years, the band has bent and turned and changed, but never so dramatically as when Mark Olson left the band and Louris’ vision led to the Big Star leanings of 1997’s Sound Of Lies. That baby step is now a confident gait, and if the last record warmed your heart, Smile is Chapter Two of the new direction.
You might be surprised to see Bob Ezrin listed as producer, as his reputation was built on bands like KISS and Alice Cooper. But Ezrin takes no job lightly, and his response to a tape of fifty possible tracks was a three page letter analyzing what each one needed. (Indeed, in an interview last year, Alice Cooper referred to Ezrin as the “sixth member of the band”). The result is a more rhythm-oriented disc, layered with guitars and drums and vocals, but still the essence of the band. “Somewhere In Ohio” starts out like a soft Spring breeze drifting through the window, but then the guitars slam in, and now we’re nose-to-nose with Wilco.
“What Led Me To This Town” and “A Break In The Clouds” find Louris and new keyboardist Jen Gunderman in a vocal duet that would make Gram and Emmylou fans…errr…smile. But “Life Goes By” has Ezrin steering them (and us) into psych-pop territory, more aggressively raucous; wah-wah guitars and percussion driving the song like the Gas Giants or Gin Blossoms might do. Then the brakes are slammed, “Broken Harpoon” centered on the acoustic guitar and the seamless harmony of four vocals fronted by Louris’ lilting lead.
“I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” is probably the first single, a hybrid of Ronnie Lane and latter-day Fleetwood Mac that might just leapfrog the boyband stranglehold on the airwaves. And if it doesn’t, that’s radio’s loss, not yours. Because ten tracks in, after the rocking “Pretty Thing”, The Jayhawks seal the deal with four killer tracks. “Mr. Wilson” is as lyrically thoughtful as it is musically stimulating, “In My Wildest Dreams” dabbles in folk psychedelia with great success, “Better Days” beautifully brings the spirit of The Band into the year 2000, and “Baby Baby Baby” forges energetic rock, great vocals and a harrowing story into an unforgettable brew that will have you arguing over the replay button and playing the whole damned thing through again start to finish.
Even if you fell on the other side of the fence after the Louris/Olson split, you have to admire this work on its own terms. Olson will no doubt continue to make good music. But The Jayhawks have just hit back-to-back home runs.
The Jayhawks page on Wikipedia
An interesting video for a live version of “Smile”