Apparently not long on the idea of reviving the band’s early 90s heyday, Mark Olson, one-half of the songwriting presence behind Americana darling The Jayhawks, decided to split shortly after the release of 2011’s Mockingbird Time, and its’ subsequent tour. That album, heralded by many as a sign that roots rock and alt-country would possibly again be sweeping the musical landscape, featured a mixed bag of results. It was almost as if Olson and his counterpart, Gary Louris, were tipping their toes in the waters, tepidly testing their working relationship out again, not very sure of where it would lead. Well, regardless of what led to the separation, Louris has chosen not to sit back and let the band turn into a legacy act. He’s re-assembled trusted Jayhawks players, reacquainted himself with some of the literary masters, and gotten back to the business of leading a band. The result, Paging Mr. Proust, is a 12-track collection that arrives with a little less fanfare than a few years ago but a few weeks ahead of a busy summer touring schedule that finds Louris and Co. spanning the North America and Europe in ambitious fashion.
The Jayhawks without Olson have traditionally been more of a power-pop band rather than a rootsy, Americana one. Hooky choruses and jangly guitars tend to win favor over the acoustic-driven high harmony sounds. Sans Olson, there are fewer “Blue” type songs and more of those arranged in the vein of 2000’s “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me”. How you feel about that is usually a matter of personal taste and preference, but somewhat surprisingly, fans of the band typically stick true to The Jayhawks in the same manner one tends to do with sports teams. It’s like cheering for the name on the front of the jersey (or, in this case the album cover art and venue marquees) regardless of who comprises the team’s lineup.
In this case, the lineup features a few stalwarts. Besides Louris, of course, there’s longtime bassist Marc Perlman, drummer Tim O’Reagan, guitarist Kraig Johnson, and keyboardist Karen Grotberg. Joining the credits are R.E.M. legends Peter Buck and Mike Mills, the former coordinating the production duties alongside Louris and Portland-based whiz Tucker Martine. Lead-off track “Quiet Corners and Empty Spaces” sets the bar for expectations pretty high. With a breezy melodic rhythm and harmony vocals taken over by Grotberg and O’Reagan, the song is a mid-tempo marvel, filled with life and spirit and sporting an irresistibly catchy chorus. It’s strong enough to likely earn a spot in heavy rotation on AAA or Americana radio while also capable of catching the ears of film and television soundtrack coordinators.
This formula works well in other parts of the album-the pleasant spring of “Lovers Of The Sun” and the frenetic “The Dust of Long Dead Stars” are centered around particularly memorable structures. Occasionally, the slower tempo gets a bit in the way-“Pretty Roses In Your Hair” is a prime offender, but for the most part this album cracks forth with more urgency than is sometimes the case with The Jayhawks. There’s an economy to the songs that makes for a spirited listen. You rarely have to labor through the duller moments.
The band also takes things a bit further out in places which makes for a nice surprise. 70s glam prominently anchors “Lost The Summer” and “Ace” gets downright jammy with its’ squawking guitars and trippy bass loops. There’s even a Tom Petty homage; the harmonica-driven The Devil Is In Her Eyes” emulates “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” like a younger brother imitates his older half.
As Olson comes and goes, Louris has a trusty cadre of collaborators by his side with this version of The Jayhawks. Paging Mr. Proust finds them to be in strong form and hitting their stride with a pretty remarkable and focused set of tunes.