The first sound on the Jayhawks' fifth album, Rainy Day Music, ought to please the band's longtime fans and alt-country purists alike. "Stumbling through the Dark" begins with a simple line of tinny Rickenbacker guitar notes that recalls '60s folk-rock in general and the Byrds in particular. These few crystalline notes suggest the Jayhawks are returning to a time when they were just an unpretentious band from Minneapolis whose stripped-down Hollywood Town Hall sounded like fresh snow covering the grunge landscape in 1993.
In the ensuing decade, founding member and co-songwriter/harmonizer Mark Olson left the band and the remaining members abandoned their Midwestern twang for narrow-scope obsessions with Alex Chilton on the bitter Sound of Lies and with Brian Wilson on the overeager Smile. If Rainy Day Music isn't a return to full form, it is a return to a time when the Jayhawks were content to make solid, sturdy, unglamorous alt-country.
While it doesn't dramatically alter that familiar sound, the album does expand the band's range of influences -- from the Byrds ("Stumbling through the Dark") to the Faces ("Angelyne") to the Eagles ("Madman") to David Bowie ("Don't Let the World Get in Your Way"). At the same time, the biggest influence on Rainy Day Music is early Jayhawks. Fortunately, the band, which now consists of original members Gary Louris and Marc Perlman and returning drummer Tim O'Reagan, have the good sense not to re-create that sound note for note but to try to capture its big-hearted spirit. On most songs, they actually succeed: Rainy Day Music comes closer to capturing the Jayhawks of yore than either of its predecessors came to Big Star or the Beach Boys.
It helps that the Jayhawks strip the arrangements down to their bare bones, replacing the guitar feedback of Sound of Lies and the programmed drums of Smile with acoustic guitars, gentle drums, and occasional flourishes, like the driving banjo on "Tailspin" and the shuffling percussion that moves "Madman." Ethan Johns' production is airy and expansive, creating a nostalgic intimacy and gently complementing the elegant austerity of Louris' songwriting. "The Eyes of SarahJane" and "Angelyne" (doesn't Louris know any Marges or Belindas?) float by with cheery momentum and contain the band's catchiest choruses, while "All the Right Reasons" and "One Man's Problem" are tenderhearted enough to live up to the album's title.
If Rainy Day Music sounds far removed from Sound of Lies and Smile, the lyrics reveal another story: Like its predecessors, this album is concerned with its own place in the Jayhawks' oeuvre and the band's place in the larger rock-and-roll canon. But where Lies was bitter about limited prospects and Smile was disconcertingly upbeat about relative obscurity, Rainy Day Music is easygoing about everything. The Jayhawks are finally content to be what they are: a great American band that still hasn't gotten its due (ironically, the Big Star of the '90s).
While almost all the Rainy Day songs have a tinge of romantic discoloring -- confusion, regret, loneliness, devotion -- many of them hint at larger, more self-reflexive issues. "Stumbling through the Dark," for example, is both an ode to lovelorn clumsiness and an acknowledgement of musical misdirection, beginning with a fan trying "to attach a meaning to words that you've heard" before Louris addresses the anxiety of influence ("The men who proceeded us here/Left only questions and fears") and admitting that he himself has been "stumbling through the dark."
Similarly, "Save It for a Rainy Day" seems directed at nÅ-metal fans obsessed with parental mistakes and marathon brooding: "Looking like a train wreck/Wearing too much makeup/The burden that you carry/Is more than one soul could ever bear," Louris sings before advising, "Don't look so sad/Save it for a rainy day." It's essentially the same wisdom he offered on Smile, but here a catchier melody makes it more effective and promising.
The ultimate ode to band life is "All the Right Reasons," which sounds like a pledge to diehard Jayhawks fans. "I don't know what day it is/I can't recall the seasons/And I don't remember how we got this far," Louris sings, evoking the daze of days spent touring and recording. "All I know is I'm loving you for all the right reasons/In my sky you'll always be my morning star." A simpler, more sweet-hearted valentine will be hard to find this year.
The trouble with reading so much meaning into these songs is that they don't always turn up such reassuring discoveries. Search too deeply in the lyrics to "You Look So Young" and you'll be creeped out: "You look so young/Have you ever been afraid?/You look so young/And I'm feeling so ashamed." The song is obviously about the heartbreaking contrast between innocence and romantic disappointment, but didn't anyone think these lyrics might be misinterpreted?
For many bands, a step backward like this -- essentially negating two full albums -- might signal either commercial sell-out or artistic bankruptcy, but for the Jayhawks, who've had a love-hate relationship with their own strengths and genre proclivities, Rainy Day Music is neither a fallback nor an admission of defeat. Instead, flawed as it is, the album is a thank-you note to the band's many loyal fans.