Friday, February 20, 2009

Drowning in Harmony: Olson and Louris


I am an old and angry man
Can’t you see that the trap’s been set . . .

Despite this not being an official Jayhawks’ album, the latest effort by Mark Olson and Gary Louris will surely suffer from the burden of expectations. As a result you get lots of luke-warm assessments such as that of Rolling Stone:

Mark Olson and Gary Louris' new disc may not be the Jayhawks reunion some fans hoped for, but it's a respectable set of mostly acoustic folk songs sweetened by the duo's bright, sibling-like harmonies.

Of course, one might split hairs and (again) point out that this isn’t in fact “the Jayhawks,” but that is a bit disingenuous. I do think it is fair to say that this album is definitely Olson and Louris in a very different place than when they were writing and performing as the J’s. Here we have two talented guys who get compared to other very famous duos. But unlike Lennon and McCartney or Simon and Garfunkel, these two are getting back together and aren’t just reliving past hits. Rather they seem to be figuring out how to make new music and move forward. And, in that context, I have to say that as I have listened to this album a lot for the last month, it is a really nice reunion that I hope leads to more collaboration as they clearly still have a lot of music in them.

The approach here is simple and straightforward. It isn’t going to blow you away. Rather it will court you patiently. Most tunes are slow to mid-tempo with the instrumentation being focused mainly on two guitars and a rhythm section. That said, there are some nice subtle musical arrangements with the rhythm guitar nicely countered with clean acoustic leads and fills as well as nice use of electric guitar, organ and harmonica on various songs, but the bottom line is two guys with guitars playing tunes.

And of course, there is the harmony—oh the harmonies. Anyone who likes to sing along with a song and add your own harmony, there is no disappointment here. Olson and Louris haven’t lost that great blend of voices, but like a good gospel tune, there is always room for you to add another harmony to their songs as you sing along.

The lyrics are searching and sometimes a bit too much Salvation Blues to me. Most songs are center on loss, growing older, trying to stay focused on the good—trying, and generally finding one’s way through the messiness of life. They all have a real sincere feel to them, but they aren’t what you would call uplifting. Even when you get a more rockin’ tune like “Chamberlin, SD” the lyrics about “draggin’ the Missouri river” give pause.

I wouldn’t mind the disc being a bit shorter—but I ambivalent on that point, since two of the tunes I really enjoy are considered “Bonus Tracks” since I assume they are not on the vinyl—too bad, as they are both nice country-oriented pieces.

So perhaps it has to do with my own identification with some of the themes here or that I just appreciate the sound of the album which has the very natural feel of two guys sitting together and sharing music (the trap was set), but I have found myself listening to this over and over and growing fonder of the album each time. Good albums to me are ones that have songs I immediately like and others that I come to appreciate—adding up to an experience that is, overall, really enjoyable. I suspect I might be enjoying this one more than others will (and in many ways it has been a musical oasis in a desert of work these last few weeks), but that is my take.

As I have been listening to it a lot, it took me a long time to decide on samples, but here you go.

Ready for the Flood (Buy Album)

Bicycle
Saturday Morning on Sunday Street
Cotton Dress (Bonus Track)


1 comment:

Chris Diller said...

I saw these guys a week ago in a small bar and they were in fine form. New and old stuff galore. They were selling CDs and signing them in part to support the quote unquote henry loyris college fund but i didnt pick this one up. Nice to hear them again, again.