The Minneapolis-based alt.-country/roots rock stalwart The Jayhawks is back at it again in the wake of the most recent split between founding members Gary Louris and Mark Olson. If longtime devotees had any reservations about the band's first studio album in nearly half a decade and the first without Olson since 2003, the sunny acoustic rock sound and trademark harmony vocals of "Quiet Corners & Empty Spaces," the lead track on "Paging Mr. Proust," should put them at ease. From the start, it is clear that the band is back and in fine form on this 12-track set.
While this song brings to mind the sound that made The Jayhawks one of the most revered bands of their genre, it is not an indication that this album is simply new songs in the familiar formula. Quite to the contrary, "Paging Mr. Proust" finds the group continuing to expand its sound.
You don't have to look far beyond that initial track to catch The Jayhawks mixing it up a bit. The second song, "Lost The Summer," has a thick and heavy guitar-driven edge that works nicely alongside vocals that are much fuzzier than what you typically expect from the band - not a radical departure, but an indication that the quintet is up for trying new things.
"The Dust Of Long-Dead Stars" is another example of the band playing around with its sound. This jangly and succinct little rocker, which is vaguely reminiscent of the hybrid roots rock/power pop/grunge sound associated with bands like the now-defunct For Squirrels, might very well be the band's most aggressive tune to date. This song also bears a strong resemblance to the sound of early R.E.M. albums. This may not be a coincidence since that band's guitarist, Peter Buck, is one of three contributing producers on this album, along with Louris and Tucker Martine.
The experimentation continues with "Pretty Roses In Your Hair," which amplifies what might otherwise be a pleasant mid-tempo track by liberally adding layers of electric guitar wash over a simple drum loop - creating a more ominous and ultimately more interesting song.
Not everything notable here is a departure from the past sound. "Isabel's Daughter" stands out thanks to its memorable melody and interesting piano and banjo accents. "Lovers Of The Sun" has a breezy '70s pop feel, and the closing "I'll Be Your Key," a meditation on the possibility of new love and devotion, is a classic Louris ballad that seems influenced by "Pet Sounds" era Brian Wilson.
The willingness to take musical risks peaks with "Ace," a song of loose construction that is at once funky, psychedelic and noisy. Although this is not a song likely to elicit sing-alongs, it is noteworthy because it is proof that the band continues to push the artistic envelope, even after three decades together.