Album: The Jayhawks - XOXO
The Minnesotan veterans are back with more top-drawer Americana
If one song best captures the overall mood of XOXO, it's the Beatles-meets-country strains of "Living in a Bubble". The punchy lyrics offer a timely warning about the effect of 24-hour news. The real impact, however, comes from the gentle, acoustic textures that usher you back to a pre-digital age. That's XOXO all over. Despite the teenager on the cover, this is really a record that exudes wisdom and experience.
In truth, even back in 1985 when The Jayhawks formed, they sounded pretty wistful. Over 11 albums the Minnesotans have specialised in harmony-rich Americana mixed with occasional excursions into power pop and indie. This LP retains all those elements. But now the recording and songwriting process has moved on. Previously, the contribution of singer/songwriter Gary Louris dominated. This time it's a real collaboration between all four band members.
Opener "This Forgotten Town" is a fine example. Louris and bassist Marc Perlman share writing credits while the floating melody is sung by Louris and drummer Tim O'Reagan. The result is an aching, alt-country gem. Equally haunting is "Ruby", a pretty voice-and-piano piece with hints of Judee Sill (written, played and sung by keyboardist Karen Grotberg). The rockiest track is O'Reagan's Dogtown Days, which drips with John Mellencamp-style swagger.
Only in the middle does the quality dip – "Society Pages" feels laboured and "Illuminate" is a little twee – but by the end, the quartet is back on form. The harmonies on the finger-picked waltz "Down on the Farm" have a rich Fleet Foxes feel while Grotberg's voice on "Across My Field" has the dreamy quality of Mazzy Star's "Fade into You". It's not immediately obvious where the album's title (XOXO = hugs and kisses) fits into all of this, but if it's a message to their longtime fans it'll surely be appreciated. Like much of their best work XOXO is a low-key yet gorgeously effective record.