Forgotten Albums: The Jayhawks, Hollywood Town Hall

There’s a two-way race for my favorite album of 1995 between Ben Folds Five and Tomorrow the Green Grass, by the Jayhawks. I’ve gone on about the latter before, noting I discovered it in the very early days of dating my future wife, and that the Wilco/Jayhawks show I saw that summer ranks as possibly the best concert I’ve attended. It couldn’t have been long before I started investigating their earlier works Blue Earth (from 1989, on their hometown Minneapolis label Twin/Tone) and 1992 major-label debut Hollywood Town Hall, released mere weeks after I began working at Georgetown.

Over the years I’ve found I keep going back to Hollywood Town Hall periodically, and it never fails to delight. HTH, produced by George Drakoulias, was well-received critically at the time, and some consider it the ‘Hawks’ finest moment. Alas, it peaked at only #192 on Billboard‘s album chart (though it made some noise as a Heatseeker), lower than any of their next six disks. It’s more than worthy of some attention, so let’s listen in on a few tracks.

The album leads off with the only song of theirs to make the Album Rock and/or Modern Rock charts; “Waiting for the Sun” may also be the one you’re most likely to recognize now. That’s Gary Louris on lead vocals.

Next up is “Crowded in the Wings,” highlighting what made early Jayhawks music most stand out: the synergistic harmonies of Louris and co-leader Mark Olson.

“Clouds” starts off sounding like a rocker, but quickly settles in to a more gentle interplay between Louris’s and Olson’s guitars. We later find out that intro also serves as the bridge. “God of the rich man ain’t the God for the poor.”

Back in the old days, “Sister Cry” would have led off side two. It’s another bout of epic harmonizing, especially on the chorus.

My favorite on the album is “Settled Down Like Rain.” Understated playing, lyrics, and singing. Gorgeous and memorable.

I go on regularly about sequencing, particularly the importance of ending an album with the right tune. What makes a closer the “right” one? I suspect context plays a big role; sometimes it’s good to go out somberly, other times rockin’ hard. “Martin’s Song” is one of two songs on HTH that also appeared on Blue Earth. Whatever it is, it’s got that last song feel, and the band agrees–it concluded Blue Earth as well.

Olson left the band after Tomorrow the Green Grass. Louris continued on with the others for several more years (I saw them a second time in Lexington a couple years later in support of 1997’s Sound of Lies). Over the last decade, they’ve reunited, recording and touring periodically; Olson even came back for one album in 2011. Their most recent effort, XOXO, was released less than a year ago.

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