Friends reunited for nostalgic celebration; sparks don’t fly.
Ninian Dunnett 2011-09-01
With Mark Olson returning as co-leader of The Jayhawks after 16 years away, Mockingbird Time marks a long-awaited reunion for nostalgic fans. Its familiar noises are pleasing, too – though it’s hard to believe this was ever a band which made music that sounded new.
Long ago, The Jayhawks in their first flight seemed like a fine idea: loping country rock without frills, brotherly harmonies, a bar-band bluesy edge (especially in Gary Louris’ grinding guitar) and, above all, Olson’s throaty, plaintive tenor. In the early 90s this modest synthesis even sounded like it might be the way ahead. The austerity of indie pioneers like Cowboy Junkies had swept away the Eagles generation, and The Jayhawks looked ready to bring an edgier sort of country into the mainstream.
When the breakthrough never happened, they split. Olson stretched out in a rootsy meander with the Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers, while Louris’ stewardship of The Jayhawks slid increasingly towards 60s pop mannerisms and airy philosophising.
Which, on the whole, is where we find them on Mockingbird Time. Classic pop inspirations loom large, apparently by design: the Beatles influence of the opening track is underlined by George Martin-style strings, and guitars ring like Roger McGuinn’s Rickenbacker on the Dylan/Byrds pastiche She Walks In So Many Ways.
There must be worse fates than ending up as a classic pop jukebox, and there’s excitement as well as devotion in all this archaeology. Looking backwards, after all, The Jayhawks are working with a much broader palette than in their days of early promise. They sound like they’re having fun. And in the more oblique moments – generally the ones that Olson makes his own, like the slight but melodically angular title-track, or the fiddle-heavy folk rock of Black-Eyed Susan – there is an understated, nostalgic reminder of a distinctive voice.