'XOXO' Review: The Jayhawks get a 'new lease on life' with latest record as they reinvent themselves
Bandleader Gary Louris took a step back this time, allowing all the members to step in and contribute to the writing and vocals and the result is fantastic
Alternative country-rock band The Jayhawks make a return with their latest album, 'XOXO', out on July 10. The release comes two years after their previous release, 'Back Roads and Abandoned Motels', which saw the band expand on their established sound. With their latest offering, Jayhawks are bringing things full circle, blending the new with the old. But contrary to their usual style of having band-leader Gary Louris be the one helming the writing and the bulk of the vocals, this time around, the band has chosen to have all its members contribute equally, producing a record that truly reflects who The Jayhawks are.
One of the most enduring and beloved groups of the last 30 years, The Jayhawks first emerged from Minneapolis in the mid-1980s though their commercial and critical breakthrough didn’t arrive until the release of their 1992 masterpiece, 'Hollywood Town Hall'. Over the ensuing decades, the band would go on to record a series of highly influential albums and tour the world countless times over, sharing stages with everyone from Bob Dylan and Tom Petty to Lucinda Williams and Wilco along the way. Following an extended hiatus in the mid-2000s, Louris and his long-time bandmates — bassist Marc Perlman, drummer Tim O’Reagan and keyboardist Karen Grotberg — returned to the studio, most recently releasing the acclaimed 'Paging Mr Proust' and 'Back Roads and Abandoned Motels' in 2016 and 2018, respectively.
"Touring those records the last few years, I never felt like I was getting to hear enough of Karen or Tim singing lead vocals," reflects Louris. "I know they write great songs, as does Marc, who’s co-written plenty of Jayhawks songs over the years, so I decided to widen the circle and let go of a little bit of control. The Jayhawks are a true band, one where everyone's an equal, and we wanted to make a record that really reflected that."
Featuring writing and lead vocal contributions from all four members, 'XOXO' is the most diverse and wide-ranging in the group’s storied history. Rather than marking sonic departure though, the collection signals a sharpening of focus for the band, an elevation in the understanding of who they are and what they do best. In classic Jayhawks fashion, the songs mix the influence of American roots music with British invasion and jangly power-pop, but there’s a new-found vitality at play as well; an invigoration of confidence and energy that could only come with the injection of fresh blood.
The result is an album that, much like the band’s lush harmonies, brings multiple distinctive voices together into a singular whole, a collection that, ironically enough, finds unity, individuality and identity in reinvention. "This album feels like a new lease on life for us," explains Louris. "I don’t know what the future holds, but this band is full of great songwriters who deserve to be heard, and my only regret is that we didn't something like this sooner."
Beginning in the spring of 2019, Louris began making monthly trips from North Carolina back to his native Minnesota, where he and the band would gather for weeklong rehearsal and writing sessions in their St Paul practice space. All four members would bring song ideas to the table in various states of completion. There were no quotas or egos at play in the process, only a quest for the best Jayhawks tunes possible, wherever they may come from.
"Some songs we molded together from scratch, but others had been fully written by one or the other of us," says Perlman, who, along with his bandmates, bounced between instruments depending on the needs of each track. "We didn’t worry too much about who penned what, because after all these years of playing together, everything we do just naturally comes out sounding like a Jayhawks song." When it was time to record, the band returned to the secluded Pachyderm Studios in Cannon Falls, Minnesota. There, they holed up for roughly two weeks of tracking, living and working in close quarters 24 hours a day.
The group later continued the sessions at Flowers Studio – founded by the band’s friend and Minneapolis music stalwart, the late Ed Ackerson. "At Pachyderm, we all shared this big old house on the grounds, so we cooked our meals, drank wine, listened to records, and walked down to the studio every morning together," says Louris. “We forged anew bond during those sessions, and I think we came out of it tighter as friends than we’d ever been before."
That camaraderie is the heart and soul of 'XOXO', which opens with the easygoing 'This Forgotten Town'. Written jointly by Louris and Perlman, the track finds Louris and O’Reagan trading off lead vocals with Grotberg coming in on harmonies, and it sets the stage perfectly for an album fueled by chemistry and trust. "Because of the added closeness we were all feeling, I think everyone was more comfortable taking chances on this record," reflects Grotberg. "The more we collaborated, the more ideas we were able to spark off each other, and the more new and unexpected directions we were able to take things."
For his part, Louris found himself tackling more topical lyrics than he was used to writing. The Harry Nilsson-esque 'Living In A Bubble', for instance, laments the problematic nature of our ratings-driven news cycle, the transportive 'Homecoming' grapples with climate change and the long-term costs of our shortsighted environmental destruction, and the trippy 'Illuminate' (a co-write with Perlman and Reagan) is an abstract exploration of idol worship that feels particularly relevant to the present political landscape.
Grotberg, on the other hand, reached back into her catalog for more timeless tunes, channeling Christine McVie with her deep, breathy vocals on the elegant 'Ruby' and hinting at the southern magnetism of Emmylou on the pedal steel-laden 'Across My Field'. "Karen’s always been a very poetic writer, but it was amazing to watch her confidence as an artist grow throughout this process," says Louris, who invited each bandmember to take ownership of their particular tunes when it came to production and mixing choices. "It was a really empowering experience for her, and for everyone, I think."
Like Grotberg, O’Reagan spends more time in the spotlight here than on any previous Jayhawks album, taking lead on a trio of tunes that balance the old and the new. The driving 'Dogtown Days' is a lean and muscular rocker in the best tradition of Big Star, the dreamy 'Looking Up Your Number' trades the power chords for fingerpicked acoustics and dreamy falsettos, and the minimalist 'Society Pages' calls to mind Guided By Voices and Pavement. Perlman rounds out the collection by contributing writing to a number of tracks and stepping center stage on the waltzing 'Down To The Farm', which draws on a mix of British and American folk traditions in its storytelling.
Despite all the different writers and voices at play, 'XOXO' remains a thoroughly cohesive record, both sonically and emotionally. While that’s due to the densely layered harmonies and impeccable musicianship that color each and every track, it’s clear that the deepened personal bonds between bandmates played a significant role in binding the collection as well.
"Arriving at a consensus these days isn’t as tough as it used to be," says O’Reagan. "I think the sound and dynamic of the band will evolve positively with everyone having an outlet for their ideas and songs." Indeed, far from altering The Jayhawks’ DNA, opening up the writing process seems to have amplified their skills and the end result is a group more inspired, more close-knit, more itself than ever before. "At the end of the day, this album is just an extension of who we’ve always been,” says Grotberg. "We’re the same band, but it feels like we’ve stepped into a new era."