If you want to ruin Gary Louris’ day, tell him the Jayhawks’ new album sounds like Dan Fogelberg.
“Ohhhh. I think I’m gonna go shoot myself,” he says, shuddering audibly into the telephone. “If that’s the kind of record I made, I’m not going to make any more.”
OK, maybe that comparison is unfair. But there’s no doubt that Rainy Day Music, as the title implies, takes the Jayhawks away from the noisy rock of 1997’s Sound of Lies and the bright pop of 2000’s Smile and more toward an introspective, melancholic vibe, with production that invites references to ’70s singer-songwriters.
Which is not to say the Minneapolis band’s fifth major-label record doesn’t rock at times, with Louris whipping up his edgy guitar leads. But the emphasis is on pretty melodies and gentle harmonies, as it was during the fine acoustic tour the alt-country band executed late last year.
Since then, frontman and chief songwriter Louris was sidelined temporarily by pericarditis, the viral heart infection that struck Bob Dylan a couple years ago. The illness postponed a scheduled January and February tour. “It’s kind of moved everything around,” said Louris, now in good health. “We haven’t really played an electric show on this record yet, because we had to do an acoustic makeup tour of Europe and the States. So we’re a little behind, and yet in certain ways it’s set it up in kind of a one-two punch.”
The band’s appearance Monday at the Vogue, aside from a taping of Austin City Limits this week, is the first stop on a month-long national roadtrip with opening act the Thorns, the new sub-supergroup featuring Matthew Sweet, Pete Droge and Shawn Mullins. Sweet, a longtime friend of Louris, contributed vocals to three cuts on the Jayhawks’ album and co-wrote the Byrds-y opening track, “Stumbling Through the Dark,” which resurfaces as a closing reprise.
A common thread between the two bands is the importance of vocal harmonies. Louris is trying to be more conscious of vocals while writing songs, a quality lost to some extent when co-founder and co-writer Mark Olson left the band several years ago. “My melodies tend to jump up and down and make it hard to get the multiple vocal,” Louris says. “I made an attempt on this record to get back to that, and I think the next record even a little bit moreso to get back to what Olson and I did, which is when you work on songs together at the same time, the song becomes tailored to the dual vocal, as opposed to putting the vocals on after the writing.”
Rainy Day Music, which also features cameos by the Wallflowers’ Jakob Dylan on vocals and ex-Eagle Bernie Leadon on banjo, is in some ways a return to the relatively simple sound of the Jayhawks’ 1992 national debut, Hollywood Town Hall. Stephen McCarthy, who seems to be the new fourth member, adds to a rural flavor with his steel guitar and banjo work.
Like many artists, Louris says he and his bandmates tend to make each new record in reaction to the previous one. The process inevitably leads back home over the course of time. “It’s cyclical,” Louris says. “Now I’m ready to do something else. I’m dying to get in there and make a different record, because this record was done last year. I want to make a very electric, dark and drunk record, at least semi-drunk and semi-dark.”
Bassist Marc Perlman, the only other original member, and drummer Tim O’Reagan also wrote songs for the record, but most are credited to Louris. Asked whether he’s pleased with the progress of his writing, he says he’s not sure.
Based on fan response, the Jayhawks’ high-water mark seems to be “Blue,” the opening cut of the acclaimed 1995 album Tomorrow the Green Grass. “It’s obvious when you go to a show that that’s the one everybody wants to hear,” he says. “It’s a bit of a drag, because it was written nine years ago. You don’t want to feel like you’ve peaked.”
Some critics have advanced the notion that the Jayhawks are cursed, destined never to see the commercial rewards — or even the widespread critical acknowledgment — that their material deserves. Louris wouldn’t go that far, but he acknowledges some disappointment with his career arc.
Now on the far side of 40, he tries to remember that the band has had a relatively long dance with the major-label system without losing its integrity, all the while building a fiercely loyal fanbase. “You can look at it and feel like you’re the luckiest person in the world, or you’re getting screwed. It really depends on how you want to look at the same picture,” he says.
“Would we like to taste another level of success? Certainly. But we’re important to many people. Do we sell a lot of records? No. But the people who sell a lot of records in many ways want what we have, and we want what they have.”
The Jayhawks appear with the Thorns at 8 p.m. Monday at the Vogue. Tickets are $20.
Scott Hall writes about music for the Daily Journal of Johnson County and The Zone in Columbus. Visit him online at www.onthebeat.org.