The lead single from the first Jayhawks album in three years doesn't sound much like what you'd expect from the laconic Everlys of the prairie. The guitars of Gary Louris and Kraig Johnson jangle over Tim O'Reagan's insistent drum pulse. Marc Perlman's repetitive, descending bass run bops atop the mix. Louris tosses off the first verse, then leans into the pre-chorus ("I'll never be all you want me to/But that's all right") before stopping short.
The other instruments fall away and Louris drops an arpeggio lick; then O'Reagan's fill brings the band back. Thick, sweet harmonies drape the anthemic chorus: "I'm gonna make you love me/I'm gonna dry your tears/And we're gonna stay together/For a million years."
"I'm Gonna Make You Love Me" is clean and simple. It's catchy. It's fluff. And it's just what Gary Louris set out to do.
"To this day, I'm ashamed that we haven't had a gold record," the head Hawk says over the phone from his Minneapolis home. "We haven't won a Grammy, we haven't had more success, and I'm embarrassed. I think we should be farther along than we are. Not because I measure everything by sales or money or fame, but I'm competitive.
"You like to think that you're making an imprint on musical history so that someday you can say, 'We were the best,' or 'We deserved a Behind the Music,' as stupid as those things are. Or you're in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, or you've got a gold record on your wall. I mean, those things sound petty, but they're certainly something I would like to experience."
And in exchange, he's willing to surrender some artistic independence. In a previous incarnation, "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me" was known as "Someone Will." Only the refrain was different--very different. Instead of happily-ever-after pap, that version found Louris musing, "I'll never be all you want me to/But that's alright/Someone will, someone will, someone will."
"The song had a much subtler chorus that I really liked," he says. "I was encouraged by the producer and the label--everyone who heard it said, 'I love that song, that's got to be the single. But you have to make the chorus better.' So I worked hard on that song. I wrote with a lot of people, every friend I knew."
This was awkward for Louris, who had never sought help on his own material outside the band. In fact, his reputation as an ace songsmith has made him just such a hired gun in the past, as when he was enlisted to help Kelly Willis pen material for her last album.
"Eventually I was pulling my hair out, and [the label] hooked me up with this guy Taylor Rhodes," Louris says. Rhodes is, in Louris's words, "a bigtime songster" whose tunes have been recorded by the likes of hair-metal balladeers Aerosmith and Nelson and pop-schlock diva Celine Dion.
"I wasn't open to that at first," Louris says. "But I said, 'If you can make this a better song, show me.' I talked to him on the phone, he came up with an idea, and I took it from there.
"I would love it to be on the radio and be one of those songs that's just driving you insane. And if that can get the second song on the radio and the third, that's fine. I'm proud of that song. There was a point where I hated it, but now I love it."
Louris is 45 this year. The Jayhawks have been around for a third of that time. They've been no strangers to difficulties in that span, and at least some of their travails have been the consequence of ambition. They'd only made one true studio album--their self-titled debut on the vanity imprint Bunkhouse in 1986--before making the early leap to a major label. George Drakoulias--Rick Rubin's right-hand man at what was then Def American (later American)--inked the Hawks on the strength of their 1989 Twin/Tone disc, Blue Earth, though it was really a collection of glorified demos.
Drakoulias then produced Hollywood Town Hall (1992), and though the album earned critical acclaim, its modest sales couldn't recoup expenses for studio time and extensive promotional and tour support. Most major-label contracts offer bands hefty advances, which are then--along with other "recoupables," including outlays for production, recording, touring, and promotion--deducted from any subsequent profits before royalties are shared with the artist. In this case the Hawks were left holding the bag: They owed Def American a staggering sum that various reports have pegged in the range of several hundred thousand to a million dollars.
What's more, working under Drakoulias had been excruciating for Ken Callahan (the band's third and most steady drummer). He quit rather than return to the studio to record Tomorrow the Green Grass, and Drakoulias brought in session ace Don Heffington. Ex-Leatherwoods sticksman Tim O'Reagan joined the band to tour in 1995--and stuck.
The single "Blue" scored the Hawks' biggest hit to date, but the Green Grass tour was cut short when band co-leader Mark Olson announced his departure. Olson said he wanted to spend more time with his wife, Victoria Williams, who has multiple sclerosis; the couple subsequently settled on a ranch in Joshua Tree, California. Olson and Williams have since made three albums (a fourth, Ben Johnson's Creek, is on the way) as the Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers. Their ramshackle front-porch folk sound, their infrequent touring and inconsistent live shows, and their openly anti-commercial stance (the self-released albums are available almost exclusively by mail order) couldn't contrast more starkly with Louris's Jayhawks of today, who seem more committed than ever to finding success on traditional industry terms.
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."
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."