The Jayhawks

Smile
(American Recordings)

Everybody these days seems to be trying their hand at doing the perfect pop record à la Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys. The Flaming Lips tried something like it with last year's The Soft Bulletin and Wilco came pretty close to pop perfection with its Summer Teeth recording, also from 1999. Even Brian Wilson himself is still trying to best his 1966 masterpiece (of course he won't) with recent recordings and live tours that rely heavily on Pet Sounds-style orchestrations and songs from the original album. So it is no surprise or shame that Minnesota's Jayhawks take a turn at doing a heavily layered and produced pop album this time out. And it is no surprise that they succeed in the effort.

The Jayhawks often have been linked with the No Depression retro country crew, but the band always has had something of a pop center that was demonstrated by their previous records, in particular 1997's The Sound of Lies and 1994's Tomorrow the Green Grass. Both sets boast great songs and good production. This time out the songs are just as strong as the production. Sometimes a major-label recording budget can do more than just drive a band into bankruptcy. Much of this credit should go to Seventies arena-rock producer Bob Ezrin, who specialized in layered hard rock during his creative and commercial heyday. At times the guitars here verge on hard rock, but what's wrong with melodic hard rock minus the hair-band soft-metal anthem quotient? What I'm trying to say is that the guitars are loud and the melodies are pretty, and there's nothing wrong with that when it's done well.

Guitarist, lead singer, and main songwriter Gary Louris delivers not only great songs and loud guitars on this recording. His vocal performances are, for want of a better term, soulful, but not soulful as in a white guy straining to sound black while grunting out pallid blue-eye soul ballads. Although Louris does not have the prettiest pipes in the world, his singing here is spirit filled and sincere. He's a soul singer in the sense that his heart and ragged emotions shine through on every track on this record. Damn, where did all these pretty pop records come from anyway?

 
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