Tuesday, September 20, 2011

ALBUM REVIEW: The Jayhawks - Mockingbird Time

The Jayhawks occupy a somewhat strange place in the pop music totem pole. Never really making it to the top, but also not never sinking completely into obscurity, the Minneapolis alt-country outfit trudged the middle of the road, developing a fan base, not massive, but devoted and sustaining. It's a position that, like anything, has its pros and cons: on the one hand, the pressure level is manageable and you're free to be yourself, on the other, stagnation becomes a very real possibility.

Perhaps because they could and perhaps because they needed to, The Jayhawks had been on hiatus since 2003's Rainy Day Music, but now they've returned, sounding refreshed and confident on the new Mockingbird Time. This is due in part to Mark Olson, who after leaving the group 16 years earlier (in the wake of 1995's Tomorrow the Green Grass) revived the classic lineup onstage for a few festival gigs, fell back into the old groove, and set about touring and writing new material.

Like so much alt-country, the new album isn't paradigm-shifting, mind-blowing stuff, but it is nevertheless a sprightly, instantly ingratiating set of songs. Unsurprisingly, you can hear the Neil Young influence trickling down into tracks like "Black Eyed Susan", but mostly, the group keeps things light and folky, sprinkling in a few indie-rock refrains for good measure. Lyrically, lines like "There's so much color in the sky that's in your eyes" can initially sound like bad teenage poetry, but settle into place on repeat listens, which the album invites, despite the 50 minute run time. It's not an essential record; like The Jayhawks themselves you can take it or leave it, but those already inclined to pick it up will find a lot to like.

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