XOXO is the 11th album from Minnesota’s The Jayhawks, their first since 2018’s Back Roads And Abandoned Motels. Musically diverse, well-crafted songs and quality production make this a must-listen.
Release Date: 10th July 2020
Label: Sham/Thirty Tigers
Formats: DL, CD, vinyl (incl coloured)
It’s also their third since they took their mid-2000’s well-documented hiatus. The band’s current lineup is Gary Louris on guitars and mellotron, Karen Grotberg on keyboards, Marc Perlman on bass, guitars and harmonica and Tim O’Reagan on drums, percussion, guitars and sitar. The band members are all accomplished vocalists and this shows in the quality of the lead and backing vocals that are a notable feature of this collection. Indeed, XOXO is notable for being the first Jayhawks album on which lead vocal (and also songwriting) contributions are split amongst all four members, rather than resting in the capable arms of mainstay Gary Louris.
Musically, XOXO is a diverse album. As would be expected, there are lashings of Alt-Country and sprinklings of rootsy Americana, but listen harder and you’ll hear liberal servings of ‘60s British Invasion pop, traces of psychedelia and the occasional lump of jangly indie-rock. It really is a tasty mixture, all seasoned with detectable influences from The Eagles, The Byrds, Fleetwood Mac, Gene Clark (whose spirit seems to pervade the album) and even Elvis Costello. The album was recorded during live-in sessions at Pachyderm Studios in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, and the cohesive benefits of that arrangement are evident throughout.
The Alt-Country scene is set by This Forgotten Town, the album’s opening cut. A muddy river, desert desolation and a shot preacher lead to salvation at the hands of a gentle female vision in a story related in Gary’s best Gene Clark voice. Tim’s Dogtown Days is a rootsy rocker with some tasty, echo-laden guitar at its heart and on Ruby, Karen gives the first of her shiver-inducing vocal performances, with assistance from guest Eric Heywood’s soaring pedal steel. The strummed acoustic guitar intro to Homecoming develops into a 1960s pastiche which manages to, at the same time, deliver a chilling message about climate change and its environmental impact, before we move on to Society Pages in which Tim aims alternately mocking and dismissive jibes at those who court publicity for its own sake.
For the Louris/O’Reagan/Grotberg co-write, Bitter Pill, the ghost of Gene Clark makes a reappearance, this time with the aid of some beautiful guitar licks from another guest, Stephen McCarthy. Across My Field is Karen’s second turn in the spotlight, which she outshines with some delicious vocal and piano and which Eric Heywood nearly steals with the best pedal steel performance on the album.
As we navigate towards the album’s close, Marc Perlman takes a turn at the wheel with Down To The Farm, a whimsical song with strummed acoustic guitar backing and harmonised vocals that, once again, recall the best of 1960s Brit Pop – maybe Peter and Gordon. Album closer, Looking Up Your Number is another of Tim’s songs, this time with soft, acoustic instrumentation.
For me, the album’s standout tracks are Living in A Bubble, Gary’s critique of the ratings-driven news cycle that predominates particularly (although not exclusively) in the US. Little Victories, a swampy, sinister song that compares favourably with Fleetwood Mac at their very best, and Illuminate, is an abstract, psychedelic, word laden piece that carries the listener back to 1967 and Knole Park, Sevenoaks (scene of The Beatles’ Strawberry Fields video.) Living In A Bubble is tuneful and enjoyable, with hints of The Eagles’ Hotel California and Illuminate is an abstract poke at the blatant narcissism of a certain public figure.
A review of XOXO would be incomplete without giving a mention to the three bonus tracks (which I assume are available only with the digital versions of the package). And Then You Walked Away, Hypocrite’s Lament and particularly Karen’s Jewel Of The Trianbelle are all excellent songs, worthy of inclusion in the main running order. Arguably, Jewel… is the best of Karen’s three lead contributions to the album. Her vocals and piano work are outstanding and the song’s tune and lyrics prompt comparisons to the work of Christine McVie or Sandy Denny.
XOXO is an excellent, diverse album from a group of highly talented, versatile musicians. The songs are well-crafted and the production is top-notch. This one is highly recommended, whether you’re a Jayhawks die-hard, an Alt-Country dabbler or just merely curious.
Listen to This Forgotten Town here: