NEW YORK (AP) — To a certain extent, singer-songwriter Gary Louris is fighting against history by reforming the Jayhawks.
“The precedent isn’t very good as far as bands putting out their best work late in their careers — in rock, it’s very rare,” said Louris, 61. “That doesn’t mean it has to be that way.”
The Jayhawks try to prove that point with Friday’s release of “Paging Mr. Proust,” a concise collection of melodic pop-rock with a few twists. The lovely “Quiet Corners & Empty Spaces” stands with the best work ever by the Minneapolis-based group that made an initial impression with early-1990s songs “Blue” and “Waiting for the Sun.”
No one can accuse the Jayhawks of living off past glory. In fact, their failure to achieve the greatness many had predicted became a defining characteristic and internal motivator. The band and Louris lived through their share of tumult.
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“I really had to come to peace with the idea of the Jayhawks,” Louris said. “For a long time I tried to do everything but.”
The band’s 2011 reunion with former member Mark Olson ended badly, and Louris landed in rehab fighting an addiction to painkillers. Louris blamed music for everything wrong in his life and was ready to quit altogether. A determined therapist talked him out of it.
He returned to writing songs, performed solo and with friends, realizing at some point he loved the Jayhawks and nobody could do his songs better. He brought together keyboard player Karen Grotberg, drummer Tim O’Reagan and bassist Marc Perlman for another go.
History teaches us that the Jayhawks have really been two different bands. With Olson, another singer-songwriter, they were leaders of the alt-country movement. Louris took over as leader when Olson left in 1995, leading it deeper into rock and experimentation. The “Sound of Lies” and “Smile” discs were landmarks.
“The existing band, without Mark, we’re all willing to try different stuff and allow other influences to come in,” O’Reagan said. “The alt-country thing is only just a small part of it. When Mark was in, that was more central to it, the front-porch kind of vibe, which I like and kind of miss sometimes … I like them both.”
The 2011 album with Olson, “Mockingbird Time,” and ensuing tour failed because Olson had grown used to being control while his former band had moved on, O’Reagan said.
You can’t go home again.
The new song “Lies in Black & White” is sure to be noticed in that context. Louris sings of being disgusted by a newspaper article filled with lies “about the situation we had allegedly been through.” He sings: “Your words are twisted, bitter, you duplicitous quitter.”
Louris denies that he’s addressing Olson, saying “my songs tend to be about multiple people.”
Still, the first thing that pops up in an online search of “Jayhawks,” ”Olson” and “Louris” is a 2014 article from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune based largely on an interview with Olson, who said, “I don’t ever want to see Gary Louris again, nor do I want him singing my songs.”
Olson claimed, and his former manager confirmed this week, that Louris had promised to retire the Jayhawks’ name. Louris said the two have different interpretations of a conversation, that it was a “heat-of-the-moment kind of thing (said) without any thought.”
He doesn’t like talking about the subject. Post-rehab, he’s interested in making amends with people although with Olson, he admitted, “I could probably do some more.”
Happier for Louris, the initial response to the Jayhawks’ ninth album dispels some of his fears about how a veteran band’s work is perceived. All seven reviews compiled by the Metacritic website were positive, critics impressed by the mixture of adventurousness and familiar.
Perhaps many agree with the view Louris came around to: “With all of this new-found clarity, I think I’ve finally realized how great this band is,” he said.
Follow David Bauder at twitter.com/dbauder. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/david-bauder