Having built one of the cornerstones of the alt.country genre with their 1997 album, Sound of Lies, the Jayhawks made the huge mistake, on the follow-up, Smile, of abandoning their core business in favour of an ill-judged foray into Eighties-style AOR, as if what we really needed at that point was the return of REO Speedwagon and their ilk. Perhaps chastened by its lacklustre reception, they've made the inevitable volte-face with Rainy Day Music, whose reference points and associations are virtually all from the early-Seventies golden era of country-rock, with the band's burnished harmonies and jangly guitars summoning memories of the Eagles, Hollies, Byrds, and Crosby Stills & Nash in song after song.
Cementing the links, the former Eagle, Bernie Leadon, even appears on the album, plunking away at his banjo on "Tailspin", while Steve Stills's son Chris is but one of a younger generation of West Coast country-rockers singing back-up here and there. It's a much more appealing album than Smile, with chief songwriter Gary Louris's abiding preference for sad songs tempered by his gift for eminently hummable melodies: the result is that even an apparent downer such as "Tailspin" – about an unjustly condemned woman – has an oddly euphoric plangency somewhat at odds with its subject matter. As before, much of the album is taken up with Louris's reflections on romantic failure, break-ups, long-distance love, recollections of old flames, and shame at inappropriate desires, with the best song, "Stumbling through the Dark", tiptoeing skilfully (and catchily) around the theme of emotional uncertainty. A welcome return to form.
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