In discussing his own addiction to opioids with the Twin Cities Pioneer Press a few months after Prince’s untimely painkiller-related death in 2016, Gary Louris confessed to its having brought him to the realization — following the band’s brief, unfortunate reunion and quick re-divorce from former collaborator Mark Olsen — that he already had “the greatest band I’d ever want to play this music” and was “lucky to have them.” As he went on to explain,
All my life, I always felt the grass was greener on the other side, whether it was relationships or my career. Everybody else always had something I didn’t have, and if I just had that, I’d be happy. But one thing you learn after you have the clarity is to appreciate what you have.1
It’s hard not to see Back Roads and Abandoned Motels, released July 13 by Legacy Recordings, as a conscious, public statement of appreciation by Louris to his longtime bandmates. Rather than relegating them to their accustomed back-line roles, Back Roads proudly showcases the other band members’ ample talents for realizing Louris’ haunting melodies and layered harmonic concepts. Louris’ appreciation begins right off the bat by showcasing Karen Grotberg’s considerable vocal talents on “Come Cry to Me.” Graced by a full set of horns (saxophones, trumpet AND trombone) manned by David Ralicke, Grotberg affectingly belts out this heartfelt tune of risk and resurrection to stunning effect:
You know how to fly on the wings of disaster/ You try to stand still but you keep going faster and faster/ You thought it’d be easy in California /The tables will turn and they won’t even warn you
Grotberg takes another lead (and harmony) vocal turn on “El Dorado” a bit later, while drummer Tim O’Reagan, who previously assumed lead vocal duties sporadically on previous Jayhawks albums, is likewise afforded more front-of- stage exposure here. O’Reagan’s fine grit sandpaper-scratched tenor and occasionally Dylanesque delivery work nicely on “Gonna Be a Darkness” and give the wistful “Long Time Ago” an apt tinge of world-weariness.
Though Louris penned most of the tunes on Back Roads with and for other artists (including The Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire, and Emily Robison, Tonic’s Emerson Hart, ex-Sugarland singer Kristen Hall, studio ace Scott Thomas, Bronx-based songwriter Ari Hest and Jakob Dylan), the Jayhawks’ versions nevertheless feel completely lived-in and definitive. This is largely thanks to co-producers Louris, John Jackson and Ed Ackerson, who instill cohesiveness by applying a consistent set of musical accents — acoustic and slide guitars, mandolin or violin, piano and Louris’ temolo- and chorus-laden
electric guitar modulations — across their alternately simple and lush arrangements of this diverse collection of tunes.
Particularly compelling, along with the tunes mentioned above, are the anthemic, Irish sea shanty-ish “Bitter End,” the lovely “Backwards Women” with its multipart harmonies on the catchy chorus and bridge, the yearning “Need You Tonight,” featuring lovely harmonies by Grotberg, and the quiet, finger- picked “Bird Never Flies,” with its lifting refrain (“I won’t give you up”) buoyed by pillowy backing vocals by Grotberg, O’Reagan and Louris.
Like a clean-up hitter in baseball, Louris sweeps in to clear the bases on the album’s final two tunes: the mid-tempo “Carry You to Safety,” with its sweet, lullaby-like chorus (“Don’t be afraid when the waves get too tall / Or when it’s cold and the snow starts to fall / I’ll be there to carry you to safety”), and the sadly beautiful, piano-laced closer “Leaving Detroit.” That last cut’s starkly heavy, at times cinematic lyrics — “You like it rough, or so you said / I hit you ’til my fingers bled … My wedding ring nicked your chin” — expose a dark, remorseful thread that runs just below the surface of this collection. “You’re already gone, this house ain’t a home / I’ll take the last flight / I’ll stare at my hands, we’ll take our last stand / I’m leaving Detroit,” Louris sings in the chorus, the sadness audibly weighing on him. It’s a devastating tune, and an apt reminder of just how perfectly Louris’ potent songwriting skills and his bandmates’ unique musical talents are mated.
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