Following Olson's departure, the Jayhawks were reborn a different animal. Louris, stung by the loss of his artistic alter ego and the concurrent breakup of his marriage, turned his lyrics inward. In producer Brian Paulson (Superchunk, Son Volt, Wilco) they found their best match yet at the helm. The band blossomed under Louris's laid-back leadership, and the result was the thematically scabrous but texturally blissful psychedelia of 1997's Sound of Lies. Energized at the prospect of a long tour behind a strong new album, the group didn't anticipate another blow: American folded, taking video, radio, and retail promotions with it, not to mention tour support. "Their timing," Louris says, ruefully, "was impeccable." Set adrift, the Jayhawks canceled most of the dates and headed home.
After that debacle, it would take three years for the band to get another new album in stores. Much of the delay resulted from byzantine legal wrangling over the jetsam of American's holdings, now under the aegis of Columbia Records. Not that the Jayhawks had trouble filling their free time--Louris, Perlman, and Johnson made and toured behind a second Golden Smog LP, Weird Tales, with their running buddies guitarist Dan Murphy of Soul Asylum, drummer Jody Stephens (Big Star), and guitarist Jeff Tweedy (Wilco). And the Jayhawks moved into new practice space and spent months acquiring recording gear to equip it. There, in various combinations, the band members spent nearly a year writing and tracking demo versions of dozens of songs.
It seemed the band had caught a break when R.E.M.'s Mike Mills asked the Jayhawks to contribute material to a movie soundtrack he was producing. Although the songs didn't make the cut, and the film (A Cool, Dry Place) went straight to video, "A Break In the Clouds" (based on "Stone Cold Mess," a Louris nugget that dates back a dozen years) and the contemplative "What Led Me to This Town" were the seeds that became Smile.
But the most significant events of the long layoff for Louris were personal: He found new love, bought a house, and became a dad (Henry Wilson Louris celebrated his first birthday in April). "After living with Sound of Lies, I think I was tired a little bit of listening to myself in such a self-absorbed state," Louris says now, reflecting, and choosing his words cautiously. "I've done a lot of reading, soul-searching--I kind of hit a rock bottom. And I got tired of being so vain that I thought the world just revolved around my little problems."
Louris says his new philosophy is as simple as a single word: Smile. And so originated the new album's title, which is not a nod to the great lost Beach Boys sessions. The moniker is not the only giveaway of Louris's new sunny-side-up approach to life: Check lyrics like "Chin up, you don't really have a problem," on the title track.
"I turned myself outward," Louris says. "I looked [at] the world around me and realized that we're all in this together. And that's kind of the concept of the record. It's about people who are afraid of commitment and afraid of losing their freedom, but find that freedom is a scary and heartless kind of place. There's only so many nights you can spend in a bar."
In advance of the new album, the Jayhawks sent demo tapes to a long and varied list of potential producers. Some intriguing prospects didn't pan out--the Dust Brothers were busy, as were Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf--but one replied with particular gusto. Louris says that Bob Ezrin "responded with a three-page letter detailing his opinions and visions of each of the 40 or 50 songs we sent him."
Thus Ezrin, his résumé dotted with the landmarks of 1970s and 1980s rock (Alice Cooper, Pink Floyd, Lou Reed, Kiss, Air Supply) was asked to produce the next Jayhawks album. Louris knew the choice wouldn't fit his fans' expectations, but that only encouraged the move in his mind--he has always actively resisted the popular conception of the band as an alt-country outfit. "My [record] collection is dominated much more by music that Bob is known for than what people might think, and always has been," Louris says. "We've carved out a niche in what is now called 'Americana,' but we're more complex than that."
Louris says Ezrin's impact on Smile was mostly a result of his methodical style. "We rewrote, rerecorded, re-demoed and rearranged until Bob was satisfied and we were satisfied," Louris says. "And that's completely different from what we've done in the past. With this record, there was so much time spent in preparation, the actual recording went really fast."
As in "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me," all that labor is audible throughout the album: Melodies are finely crafted, but the fire of discovery is often missing. Louris's lyrics are lean and concise, but occasionally sound as if they've been eviscerated somewhere in the songwriting process. And some of Ezrin's knob-twiddling decisions are questionable. Louris says the producer suggested the use of drum loops on "Somewhere in Ohio" in hopes of creating a "modern folk" sound--not that this, even if successful, would be a new idea in the age of Beth Orton and Beck. Maybe Ezrin suffers from roots-phobia, or the Hawks really are trying to tweak their twang-friendly followers: In any case, it takes a well-trained ear--and really good headphones--to hear the splendid pedal steel anywhere but on "A Break in the Clouds."