"To me, this record sounds like everything, yet nothing we've ever done before," Jayhawks frontman Gary Louris says of his group's seventh and perhaps definitive album, Rainy Day Music. "We just wanted to make a record that we loved. I'm proud of how it turned out." Even for those familiar with the Jayhawks' impressive body of work, Rainy Day Music will come as a revelation. This is roots-pop pared down to its essential elements: harmony and melody, acoustic guitars and great songwriting.
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Rainy Day Music signals the next phase of a career that has seen critical acclaim, cult stardom and the release of several seminal country-soul albums, including 1997's Sound of Lies and 2000's beloved Smile, an album the New York Times called "one of the most beautifully ambitious rock records of the year, an exquisitely melodic and literate concept album about wanderlust and the distance people will go to run away from their problems."
A crisp, gorgeous collection of songs that rivals anything in the Jayhawks' storied history, the back-to-basics Rainy Day Music represents a marked departure from the psychedelic A.M. radio pop of Smile. Louris figures the change is all part of the artistic process. "Life is action and reaction. One always reacts to what one did previously," he says. "That being said, our approach was different this time. We wanted to write songs that sounded good on an acoustic guitar. We figured, if they stood on their own, they were strong songs. We know it's not a new theory, but it felt right."
Indeed, everything about Rainy Day Music feels right: The album marks the band's first collaboration with noted producer Ethan Johns (who helmed Ryan Adams' Gold and Tift Merritt's Bramble Rose). It's also the Jayhawks' first release since they moved to Lost Highway, which has proved to be a providential union of artist and place. "We've worked with great people before, but from top to bottom we have never felt more at home than on Lost Highway," says Louris “When you think about the catalog they've got, the other artists on the label, it's like the stars have finally aligned correctly for us."
The Jayhawks formed in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1985, and released two independent albums before signing to Rick Rubin's Def American label in 1991. The release of 1991's Hollywood Town Hall and 1994's Tomorrow the Green Grass placed them squarely at the forefront of the burgeoning alternative-country movement, and yielded radio hits like "Waiting for the Sun" and "Blue." The band toured with everyone from Matchbox Twenty to Wilco, and gained a reputation among critics and fans alike for finely crafted country rock that rewarded both immediate and repeated listenings.
With the release of Rainy Day Music, this is truer than ever. Despite the outward simplicity of its fourteen tracks, there's a lot going on underneath. "These songs appear simple yet take little twists and turn along the way,” says Louris, who describes Rainy Day Music as "more meditative than melancholy. It has a rainy day, English countryside kind of feel to it. I think we have been described as a very American band with a very British songwriting style. Maybe that has something to do with it."
Before going into the studio, Louris, bassist Marc Perlman and drummer Tim O'Reagan embarked on an acoustic-mini tour. "It was a conscious way to prepare for the album," Louris remembers. Much of Rainy Day Music, which took six weeks to record and mix, from start to finish, was done live. "We did it the old school way, with no computers.”
Rick Rubin served as executive producer on Rainy Day Music, which saw guest turns from Matthew Sweet, Chris Stills, ex-Eagle Bernie Leadon, along with Jayhawks sidemen (ex-Long Ryder) Stephen McCarthy. "It was a painless record to make," Perlman says. "Ethan's way is to go for the vibe, and whether or not a song made the record was more about whether or not it had a mood and a vibe to it. I don't think any of us walked into the studio with any preconceptions. Basically, all of the ideas that had been tossed around since the last record all went into the blender. No matter what, there's enough consistency to our records that they always sound like us, but it's still always interesting to see what comes out."
Johns' low key recording style dovetailed neatly with the Jayhawks' desire for a cleaner, more streamlined sound. "He was interested in what the band does naturally, and that helped a lot," say O'Reagan. "It's a very honest-sounding record, and we're proud of that. It's not forced; it flows naturally. There's a kind of cohesiveness to it that's satisfying."
Though there's an uncharacteristic sparseness to Rainy Day Music, tracks like the first single "Save It For A Rainy Day" (which is "basically about a beautiful disaster of a person I know," Louris says. "Like most of the songs, it's pretty real") and "Come To the River" (which features a guest vocal from Jakob Dylan) are emblematic of the traditional Jayhawks approach, with indelible melodies and gorgeous harmonies. "There's a classic Southern California feel to some of it, and some of it's a little dark and moody," says Perlman. "Though it's not as depressed of a record as we've made in the past. Lots of it reminds me of the early days of the Jayhawks. Somehow, we always manage to sound like us." Louris adds, “For me, this record represents 14 moments in time. People playing a song together in a room.”
Rainy Day Music is as timeless as "Smile" was contemporary, an album that will sound as relevant in twenty years as it would have played alongside a Byrds album in late 1960s Los Angeles. And the Jayhawks wouldn't have it any other way. "We've always been a little early or a little late," Perlman says. "With this record, I think we're right on time."
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