Attempting to assign a specific sound to The Jayhawks is a bit like trying to pin a paper tail on a live donkey. The Minneapolis outfit, fronted by co-founders Mark Olson and Gary Louris, began life in the '80s as a country rock band, but found its greatest critical success in the early '90s with the rootsy alternative rock folk of "Hollywood Town Hall" and "Tomorrow the Green Grass," which blended the band's natural rock leanings with its upper Midwest Bob Dylan heritage. After Olson's early departure, Louris was free to explore the broad spectrum of his influences, from the psych/folk tremble of "Sound of Lies" to the twang pop of the masterful "Smile" to the spartan country folk of "Rainy Day Music."
Over the years, the sonic diversity has been amplified by a variety of factors, including Olson's sporadic reappearances, Louris' maturation and evolution as a songwriter and numerous personnel adjustments. That latter element comes into play on the band's latest effort "XOXO," which may represent the most collaborative album in The Jayhawks' estimable catalog.
The direction of "XOXO" was seeded on The Jayhawks' last album, 2018's "Back Roads and Abandoned Motels," which featured a number of Louris' outside co-writes as well as longtime drummer (and solo artist in his own right) Tim O'Reagan and keyboardist Karen Grotberg taking lead vocals on two songs each.
With "XOXO," Louris intended to display the more egalitarian aspects of The Jayhawks by pushing O'Reagan and Grotberg to contribute their own compositions and share more of the performance spotlight, a calculated risk; given Louris' malleable yet indelible identity as the band's creative sparkplug.
"XOXO" could easily have become stylistically episodic with so many cooks, but the band's established and longstanding chemistry - Louris and bassist Marc Perlman go back to The Jayhawks' 1984 launch, O'Reagan joined in 1995 and Grotberg's non-consecutive tenure amounts to a 20-year stint - virtually guarantees that the result is one of the band's most cohesive and dynamic albums in recent memory.
"XOXO" begins in classic fashion, with "This Forgotten Town:" patented harmonies, a quietly strummed folk opening ultimately giving way to Louris' stinging, soothing guitar minstrations, a melancholy soundtrack to a lyrical message of regret in the rear view mirror ("In the land of milk and honey is where I lay my claim/But every day that I lost money brought me closer to the grave"). O'Reagan's rocked up "Dogtown Days" follows with an adrenalized swagger reminiscent of the Minneapolis alternative rock scene that attended The Jayhawks' birth.
Another unique elements of "XOXO"'s sonic profile is the heightened presence of Grotberg's keyboards, a potent addition to the band's arsenal, particularly on Grotberg's moving "Ruby," a paean to the woman who helped raise her, and "Across My Field," a reflection on a rural period in her life that wouldn't sound out of place on a Neko Case release.
As different as "XOXO" feels at first blush, a few listens reveal the new intricacies that have been added to the band's existing architecture and ultimately prove Louris' contention that The Jayhawks are a band and not just his band.