It’s been 16 years since the last Jayhawks album, but with Mockingbird Time, these iconic old folks of pre-Wilco alt-country don’t sound like they’ve missed a beat. Gary Louris and Mark Olson fall right back into their quirky, familiarly off-kilter harmonies, and the duo lead their band through a series of earmarked tunes that would have mostly fit right in with 1995’s Tomorrow The Green Grass.
Louris has told Rolling Stone, “Our goal is to make the best Jayhawks album that’s ever been done.” That’s a tall order, indeed, and on first listen, Mockingbird Time feels a bit plain, if not underwhelming. But repeated listens peel back the layers to reveal a fine collection of uniquely American songs that sound ripped from the Minnesota soil.
All the characteristic Jayhawks sounds are distilled herein; Olson’s a little bit country and Louris is a little bit rock ‘n’ roll. Their harmonies, again, are inseparable from the overall palette, but the record also shimmers with understated flourishes. Bassist Marc Perlman and drummer Tim O’Reagan create an unshakeable foundation while Karen Grotberg fills out the arrangements on keyboards. The guitar tones range from thickly distorted (the bluesy drone of Stand Out In The Rain) to jazzy and loosely warm (the fantastic solo on Cinnamon Love).
The album opener Hide Your Colors is an all-out electric rock song that’s unnecessarily weighed down by a string section, but it opens the album on a fine note. Closer To Your Side feels nicely folky with its 12-string guitar and gentle refrain. Tiny Arrows is all smoky, slow-burning bluesy roots rock atmospherics, while She Walks In So Many Ways draws obvious comparisons to The Byrds for good reason.
Cinnamon Love is dark revivalism, thick with sludgy guitar riffing and a wall of vocal harmonies and wayward harmonica. Black-Eyed Susan is a bit of an oddball in the collection, anchored as it is by the wailing of a winsome fiddle. “This is gonna be a dark road,” Louris and Olson sing. It’s a tale of lost hope and the search for something to believe in; there’s no story more American.
Hey Mr Man is a fast, chugging hard rocker that ends the album on a marvellous high note. And while we haven’t had any shortage of solo work by either Louris or Olson over the last decade or so, it’s good to have The Jayhawks back. Mockingbird Time isn’t necessarily a revelation, but it doesn’t need to be. Here’s proof that these old mainstays still have songs to sing, and repeated listens to the album reveal flashes of greatness just below the straightforward exterior. Mockingbird Time should eventually earn its spot right up there with Tomorrow The Green Grass and Hollywood Town Hall.