The simple songs work best under the studio sheen: "Better Days" (which rides on the harmony vocals of Karen Grotberg, who left the band last year and was succeeded on keyboards by Jen Gunderman) and "Broken Harpoon" are uncluttered yet deeply soulful.
Some of the rock tunes don't fare as well, but Smile is polished to a gloss for a reason: Louris wants to sell records in bunches.
For years the Jayhawks have existed in a kind of limbo: They outgrew their status as local heroes but haven't taken the next step into the mainstream, as did Soul Asylum and, more recently, Semisonic. Each release since Hollywood Town Hall has been hyped as the Jayhawks album that will finally break through, and each one has attracted a wave of cheerleading press both national and local--some echoing the band-on-the-brink party line, others castigating the public for not buying more Jayhawks records. Today, large-scale stardom may be more elusive than ever for the group. In a pop scene ruled by boy bands and bellybutton babes born only a year or two after the Hawks first started, chances are slim that a simple, mature rock song can storm the Top 40.
Though he's loath to admit it, Louris wrestles with that reality. "Woke up one day and my dreams were gone," he sings in "What Led Me to This Town." He knows he's unlikely to achieve the platinum status of his friend Jakob Dylan of the Wallflowers, or even match the popularity of his fellow Smogster Jeff Tweedy, who with Wilco snagged a Grammy nomination for Mermaid Avenue and who has enjoyed numerous TV appearances and regular movie soundtrack work. And Louris seems afraid--or at least wary--of ending up like Soul Asylum (who long outlived their relevance), Paul Westerberg (a shell-shocked shadow of his former self), and most of all Alex Chilton, embittered by a lifetime of never getting the due he felt he deserved.
On the pristine ballad "Mr. Wilson" (named for his son), Louris looks forward, backward, and inward in wrestling with the concept of fulfillment. The second verse addresses Chilton specifically: "Smug in his ways, big in his day ...Scared that his best is all in his past." Louris is reluctant to discuss the song, allowing only that it "talks about how people end up accumulating all this emotional baggage, whether it's jealousy or bitterness."
Trying to avoid the same fate, Louris is throwing himself into the promotion of Smile. "My goal is to get out there and tour as much as we can," he says. "[I want to] just give it the ultimate shot, and then if it doesn't work, we can say that we tried. We have no excuses."
Louris says Smile will be a turning point for the Jayhawks--one way or another: "I would say it's make or break. My attitude now is to give it all I have, and if it falls on deaf ears, then that may be telling me something."