Review Summary: The intersection of Byrds, Burritos and Big Stars points the way to no depression.
I first encountered Hollywood Town Hall in a friend's vinyl collection, and something about the cover stuck with me. That image - crisp geometric green roof against frosty sky, with the charming “displaced couch” concept, looks iconic. Like the mother of “displaced couch” covers. My ears were more attuned to the brassiness of label mates the Black Crowes, so it didn't register with me then.
Still, that cold Minnesota day made permanent drew me back in year after year, and I grew to admire the music. The Jayhawks are not here to blow your speakers out - many bands are relief, but these guys are intaglio. They certainly weren't about trends.
The lineage of this band is pretty clear - there's a lot of Gram Parsons, but there's a beautiful vein of melody and bright guitar courtesy of acts like Big Star as well. Mark Olson and Gary Louris have that indefinable vocal communion, as if the voices are different versions of the same person. Olson is the older man who knows regret; Louris is the more hopeful younger one who nevertheless sees it coming. It's that smoke in smooth brandy, or a coil of inky balsamic in clear oil.
Rubin alumni George Drakoulias keeps things simple on the production side. There's no trickery, just lots of faith in the material. It's pretty much like the cover - a clear sky and sunshine on a cold day. The Jayhawks have a reverence for country rock and Americana, and as the band said in their press kit, Louris has a knack for finding a "part" - a way to bring the song alive with an expressive solo or passage.
The album opens with almost a pin drop of piano, and immediately the other instruments announce themselves, creating the impression a band assembling in your headphones. It's such an elegant 25 seconds, as if you're formally invited in, but there's no needless ceremony. 'Waiting for the sun' bounces along tunefully, then drops away into a beautiful harmony at the end of the line. The pre-chorus and rollicking chorus fit together beautifully, and there isn't a component in the song that doesn't delight. Hollywood Town Hall is attentive to the listener - no waste, no flash, but also no blank canvas.
From a lyrical perspective, the Jayhawks are perhaps a little less direct than one would expect for an act like this - many of the songs clearly have a narrative but I wouldn't classify them as traditional storytelling, aside from album closer 'Martin's song'. Perhaps a unifying factor is themes of movement (sometimes unconscious or involuntary) and distance altering our lives. 'Sister Cry' speaks of marriage changing someone's location, without having time to adjust. 'Take me with you' starts off with water imagery and it sounds like our narrator hopes he'll slip downstream with his departing lover, but secretly he fears it's more likely he'll sink without her. By the time we get to 'Nevada, California', the words of the singer sound disorientated by too much travel and loss. The vocals throughout the album seem to capture that undercurrent of unnoticed ache caused by leaving things behind.
The Jayhawks are another piece in the evolution of country rock fusion - a branch veering off into the alt-country of Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, Wilco and maybe even Whiskeytown. While they don't really have a 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot' in their ever expanding (and still consistently excellent) discography, they do have a 'Hollywood Town Hall', and it's an exceptional record. I'd be surprised if there weren't a few bands on the Twin Cities circuit that didn't hear this and want to make something as complete and sweetly beautiful.