There’s always something challenging when your favorite band decides to put together a best-of compilation. You are guaranteed to disagree with some of the song choices, and there is also the little detail that best-of albums by default point to a glorious past, but not necessarily an equally glorious future. For many, if not most bands, releasing what’s basically a career summary would seem like an implicit acknowledgement that your best years are behind you. Sure, it’s a nice service to people who may have just discovered you, but to your longtime fans, it may illicit one of two responses: Either the arrogant shrug, meaning that the compilation is written off as something unworthy of real, loyal fans, because they of course already own, know and love all your records and look with some suspicion at anyone who might need a best-of-compilation as an introduction. Or they engage with it with some emotional distance, as something less than an original album, but still worthy of academic interest, if only to discuss how the got the song selection so spectacularly wrong.
Of course, July’s release of Music From The North Country, an anthology of highlights from the career of country-rockers The Jayhawks, would not fall neatly into this category, as the band parted ways four years ago. But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t feel the exact combination of the two reactions. Actually, almost to a greater degree. In addition to making me consider what exactly it is that I love about them, I was struck by a renewed sense of sadness. Music From The North Country is a monument of great accomplishments and impeccable taste, but it is also clear signal that The Jayhawks as we knew it is now in the past. Lead singers Mark Olson and Gary Louris may be touring , and even recording together again, but judging from last year’s disappointing Ready For The Flood, the sum of the both of them still is not as great as it once was under the Jayhawks label. That said, I’m of course thrilled with recent reports that Jayhawks are now hopefully on the slow path to recording again, doing a couple of reunion shows this summer.
That said, treating the Olson/Louris partnership as part of one, evolving Jayhawks timeline would be a misrepresentation. Olson was the frontman until 1995’s Tomorrow The Green Grass failed to hand them a commercial breakthrough, and from there, Louris took the group from its fairly distinct alt-country background into experiments with noise on the somewhat confused and uneven Sound of Lies (1997), and finally to the comfortably beautiful country-infused pop music of Smile (2000) and Rainy Day Music (2003). In what could only considered an enormous accomplishment by Louris, the transition of Jayhawks from an Olson to a Louris project, and from an alt-country stable to a country-conscious pop group, they never lost the ability to craft some incredibly catchy songs. Even the Sound of Lies had definitive highlights like Trouble and The Man Who Loved Life, both wisely included on Music From The North Country.
I assume it’s out of respect for Jayhawks’ diverse but still surprisingly coherent musical signature, that they have decided to include roughly the same amount of songs from all albums. The debut album Blue Earth, which would have to be considered very good if released by almost any other group, but has the slight feel of minor Jayhawks, is also represented by Two Angels, which was also included on their first big-label release, 1992’s Hollywood Town Hall, and Ain’t No End. While I’m sure I could put together another full disc of songs to replace the ones picked, summarizing The Jayhawks’ career, while certainly a treat to the listener, will always consist of a series of hard choices. There’s no law saying that Clouds, Martin’s Song and Waiting For The Sun are necessarily better or more natural choices from HTH than Take Me With You (When You Go), Nevada, California or Crowded In The Wings, but the songs chosen only make me hope even stronger that those who hear The Jayhawks for the first time through this collection will go on to check out their entire output.
Likewise, the determination to not discriminate against against any one record and keeping the best-of portion to one disc, meant that Tomorrow The Green Grass had to be capped at four songs. Again, Blue, I’d Run Away, Miss Williams’ Guitar and Over My Shoulder are all excellent songs, and I would have been in pain to cut any of them, but still, the upper limit means that personal favorites like Two Hearts, Bad Time, See Him On The Street and (particularly) Nothing Left To Borrow will have to be left out. Apart from Uncle Tupelo’s No Depression (1990) and possible some Wilco records, Tomorrow has to be the best and most influential album of the 1990’s alt-country scene, and to that background, it’s a little sad to see its excellence curbed in this way. As perhaps the one record that really moved me to the (alt-)country camp (later opening my ears and mind to such diverse acts as Ryan Adams, Emmylou Harris, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Bright Eyes, Son Volt, Jesse Malin, Golden Smog, and even – in a wider sense – to The Hold Steady, Steve Earle and late Neill Diamond), it also has taken on a special status in my record collection.
If you ask me which of the Gary Louris-headlined Jayhawks albums is my favorite, I’ll probably give you a different answer every day of the week, and the songs collected here, for instance, only begin to explore the depths of pitch-perfect pop music that graced Smile. I’m very satisfied that the title track was included, and I’m Gonna Make You Love Me has to be one of the best songs in the entire Jayhawks catalog. Still, I think I would have replaced the (admittedly beautiful) What Led Me To This Town with Somewhere In Ohio (this one, and Bruce Springsteen’s Youngstown was enough to make Ohio one of my favorite states). And even this wouldn’t have left for the incredible harmonies of A Break In The Clouds, or Broken Harpoon, another one of those who despite having taken on a very special personal meaning to me, I’m sure would receive equal love from anyone. The experiments of Sound of Lies are still traceable on Smile, and if I am to point to a weakness on this generally excellent album, it will have to be Life Floats By and Pretty Thing, and their forays into more straightforward rock. Which is my way of saying they are the only tracks I would have excluded from an extended version of Music From The North Country.
Finally, there’s Rainy Day Music, continually fighting it out with Smile for the title of Gary Louris Jayhawks masterpiece. Music From The Country picks Tailspin, Save It For A Rainy Day, Angelyne and All The Right Reasons, and they are all welcome inclusions. If pressured however, I may have dropped Tailspin for Stumbling Through The Dark, and then probably have cried myself to sleep over my inability to secure a slot for The Eyes of Sarah Jane, You Look So Young or One Man’s Problem. On the final tracks of the album, Jayhawks’ seems to reach back to the rootsy feel of the transitory Sound of Lies, as if to try to knit all of Jayhawks’ history together. It is oh so fitting that the final track on The Jayhawks final album is titled Will I See You In Heaven. It’s not only as if they know this is the end, it’s also a pretty precise description of how their music makes me feel. Nostalgic, sure, and pretty sure there is a heaven on earth, but most importantly, this song makes me believe that at one point in the future, we will be reunited.
Until that happens, check out Music From The North Country. And make it only your starting point, will you?