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Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2009

The Jayhawks

Music from the North Country: The Jayhawks Anthology (American/Legacy)

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­At the time of The Jayhawks' mid-'80s inception, the Minneapolis/St. Paul scene that s­pawned the group was more about the punk and hardcore of The Replacements and Hüsker Dü than the kind of edgy folk country rock in which this band specialized. During the mid-'90s, when the likes of Hootie and Sister Hazel were making certain brands of rural mellowness safe for frat parties, the 'Hawks managed a couple of placements in movies and TV ads, but that one big break still eluded them.

All the more endearing for being underdogs, the band and their music hold up on their own. A new anthology proves the point with more than 20 tracks spanning 15 years of major and indie label output. Perhaps it was the poetically melancholy, enigmatic nature of Mark Olson and Gary Louris' songwriting or Louris' guitar technique, often emulating pedal steel with a patina of feedback, that made the 'Hawks a major cult draw without reaching greater stardom.

No matter, the band's protean shifts in production, arrangement and instrumentation managed to maintain a certain sadness, even as Louris took over lead vocals once Olson joined (now ex-) wife Victoria Williams for folkier musings. And like the image portrayed in the music videos and electronic press kits included on the DVD of the album's deluxe edition, their hooks and melodies retain an organic grace that never quite jibed with rock star expectations. Considering the eclectic makeup of commercial alt rock radio playlists during the second half of the last decade, it's surprising that nothing here vaulted them up to that next level.

Like some of the act's primal inspirations-Gram Parsons, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Bob Dylan-it's likely that The Jayhawks' influence will permeate the mainstream as their fans form bands that achieve greater success. And just as '70s Southern boogie rock has made its way into country radio, it's already possible to detect some residual Jayhawks feel in the more thoughtful acts sharing the same chart space as Toby Keith and George Strait. The embrace of grander, more orchestral textures by some indie rockers hearkens back to certain periods of the Jayhawks' work as well.


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