The Jayhawks (photo by Vivian Johnson, PR)
Coming out of Minneapolis, The Jayhawks have been a constant presence on the American alt-country rock landscape since forming in early 1985. Throughout the band’s 35 years, guitarist and lead singer Gary Louris and bassist Marc Perlman have been the Jayhawks’ rock-solid foundation. Now fortifying this foundation from within, they deliver their eleventh studio album, XOXO, the follow-up to 2018’s Back Roads and Abandoned Motels, and reveal a new side to the Jayhawks’ musical might.
When it came time to start thinking about the Jayhawks’ next project, Louris (guitars, mellotron), who is the lead singer and main songwriter, decided that it was time to stir the band’s creative juices by employing a more democratic approach to the making of the next album: “It was time to open things up. The Jayhawks are a true band, one where everyone’s an equal, and we wanted to make a record that really reflected that.”
Realizing that the talents of Perlman (bass, guitars, harmonica), Tim O’Reagan (drums, percussion, guitars, sitar), and Karen Grotberg (keyboards) had been underutilized in the past, Louris encouraged the others to be more involved in the songwriting, performing, and recording of the new album. It was not a stretch to believe that each member was more than capable of delivering the goods. After all, most of the Jayhawks' albums feature at least one song co-written by Perlman. O’Reagan, who joined in 1995, has already contributed both as a songwriter and lead vocalist. (O’Reagan has also released a solo album.) Even Grotberg, who initially joined the band in 1992, left in 2000, and returned for good in 2008, has made significant contributions to the Jayhawks’ sound.
Besides a goal of presenting the Jayhawks as a true band of creative equals, Louris was also needed the assistance of his bandmates. His stash of new songs was running low, being that he had just finished recording his second solo album (due out in 2021). Contributions from the others were very much welcomed. The stage was now set. With Perlman, O’Reagan, and Grotberg challenged to step up and take their own spot next to Louris, XOXO became the most egalitarian Jayhawks album by far.
XOXO starts off with the killer one-two punch of “This Forgotten Town,” written by Perlman, Louris and O’Reagan, and “Dogtown Days.” The former, with piercing guitars, shimmering pedal steel, and the trademark Jayhawks harmonies elevated by Grotberg’s rich voice, is poised to become a future Jayhawks classic, while the latter is O’Reagan’s slice of Big Star-styled power pop. The band’s signature countified roots show through on Louris, O’Reagan, and Grotberg’s “Bitter Pill” which, like “This Forgotten Town,” is enhanced with pedal steel.
XOXO is packed with melodically rich songs that the band seems able to produce on command. These include the progressive-minded “Homecoming,” penned by Louris, and “Little Victories,” from Louris and O’Reagan. But perhaps the album’s most pleasant surprise is the piano ballad “Ruby,” written by and sung beautifully by Grotberg, who later takes a second lead vocal on another solo composition, “Across My Field.”
XOXO was recorded at Pachyderm Recording Studio in Cannon Falls, Minnesota (south of the Twin Cities) as well as Flowers Studio in Minneapolis. To enhance the atmosphere of unity within the group, the members all lived together during their two-week stay at Pachyderm. The band collectively produced the album, with Louris as the executive producer, and received a little help from former Jayhawks Stephen McCarthy and John Jackson.
With a simple adjustment to their blueprint, the Jayhawks have produced an album that accomplishes their main goal—to present this multi-talented band as a versatile force where each member is integral to the music. XOXO is pure Jayhawks, but it’s the Jayhawks as viewed through a different lens, looked at from a slightly different angle, and under altered lighting.
Listen to a brand new "Marquee Live from Home" with The Jayhawks (Gary Louris solo), airing on 90.7 on Tuesday, July 21 at 9p.m. ET or streaming online anytime.