Mark Olson & Gary Louris – Hawks of a different feather
We each inevitably hear music in the particular ways that we do at least partly because of all that we’ve heard before because of the context and expectations we bring to new work. For instance, many of us have anticipated Ready For The Flood, an album by Mark Olson & Gary Louris, in light of the music the two men once made together in a great but now defunct band called the Jayhawks. We look forward to their renewed collaboration precisely because of the Jayhawks. Yet Ready For The Flood is most definitely not a Jayhawks record, and not only because other members of that group fail to make an appearance. The new album both meets and frustrates expectations, and the result is its own distinctive, very beautiful thing.
I bet I’m not alone in saying that what I missed most about the Jayhawks after Olson left the band in 1995 was the way he and Louris’ voices worked together. More precisely, we missed The Voice: the single and singular voice created when Olson and Louris joined in harmony. I’ve long said that the Jayhawks’ Hollywood Town Hall was among the best, if not the best, of the albums released in that exciting alternative-country moment of the early 1990s. A big part of that album’s emotional success was Louris and Olson’s country harmony blend. On, for instance, that album’s “Crowded In The Wings”, the pair “duet” in the old-school, country-brother-team sense of the term: They are not lead singer and backing vocalist, they are just…The Voice. Louris and Olson are equally up-front in the mix, mournful but always a unified and powerful force.
“The Voice”: The Jayhawks performing “Blue” on late-night TV, April 1995
The Voice makes few appearances on Ready For The Flood. For one thing, Olson and Louris’ individual contributions to their blend have each traveled thirteen years down the road, and they now have the rasps and cracks to prove the passage of time. What’s more, one man or the other’s voice tends to take the spotlight from song to song. And even when they do achieve something like the old seamless synthesis, the result is less perfectly timed and closer to the ragged harmonies of The Band than the pristine Voice of the Jayhawks. On “Bicycle”, for instance, Louris’ reedy tenor is scratchy almost to the point of being tactile, and Olson’s harmony feels far, far away. The emotional result is more cautious, more alone, than it was on their old recordings; it’s a sound just barely hanging on.
The other stunning quality of Olson and Louris’ Jayhawks records, at least to my pop-approving ears, was the muscular, majestic production work of George Drakoulias. Indeed, I really don’t think I can name for you any better-sounding records, ever, than those Drakoulias made with the Jayhawks. (And, too, with the Black Crowes, and with Maria McKee on her album You Gotta Sin To Get Saved, which featured the guitars and harmonies of…Gary Louris and Mark Olson. That album includes McKee’s version of the duo’s “Precious Time”, which they reprise here in one of two bonus tracks.) On the other hand, it takes a lot of precious time and a lot of money to get sounds that commanding. Also required is the willingness and the patience to use the studio itself as an instrument, rather than a mere tool for capturing the performances of more conventional instruments. When done right, as it was on the Jayhawks’ Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow The Green Grass, the results speak for themselves.
On the other hand, the road to such a sound is a tedious, claustrophobic, minutiae-focused journey that’s all but guaranteed to test the tempers of its participants, and that has contributed to the dissolution of many a band. Perhaps this is part of why Louris, Olson and their producer Chris Robinson (a Black Crowe who knows firsthand both the benefits and burdens of that approach) have crafted a comparatively lo-fi sound on Ready For The Flood a less stressful sonic approach might assist Olson and Louris in cementing anew their old friendship, rather than testing it straight out of the box. In any event, Robinson told occasional ND contributor Erik Flannigan that, for this project, “Everything’s going to be live, one take, no headphones.”
So the sonic results couldn’t be more different than the friends’ prior collaborations…but they also couldn’t be more successful. Ready For The Flood is a delicate and intimate affair. It is largely “unplugged,” and it captures many of the perfect imperfections of live performance, the squeaks of fingers across strings, of moist lips and dry throats, the occasional missed note and popped “p”. Whereas the Jayhawks sounded gloriously larger than life and capable of singing loss to the world, Louris and Olson here sound small and tentative; they seem mainly interested in just conversing with you and me, and with one another. There are a couple examples of uptempo, ’60s-influenced rock ‘n’ roll (“Chamberlain, SD” and “Doves And Stones”) where the acoustic-guitar-and-acoustic-guitar arrangements are juiced with drums, harmonica and electricity. But most of the album is like “Saturday Morning On Sunday Street”, a Simon & Garfunkel-ish tune that feels like secrets spoken, hushed, across a table.
The pair still writes lyrics that usually resist anything but the most generalized explications. The opening “The Rose Society” (which starts with a lick borrowed from Son Volt’s “Windfall”) is, like most of the pair’s songs, about loss, in this case what appears to be the loss of position or of status. Beyond that, I really can’t say much, and I couldn’t say that much if I didn’t have access to the lyrics in the CD booklet. Other songs are even too opaque for generalization. “Bicycle”, for example, includes the chorus, “It’s hard to ride at night on your bicycle, with no lights to guide/Just take a chance and ride” lines that as metaphor are impenetrable, at least within the context of the rest of the song, and that as road safety tips are inadvisable in any event. But if proof was ever wanted that the music of songs can matter so much more than their words, that melody and harmony can embody meanings words won’t give up, it is found in the songs of Gary Louris and Mark Olson.
That said, my favorite line on the album appears in “Bloody Hands”, a murder ballad that pays homage to those country brothers who have inspired this pair not only by being the twangiest track they’ve ever recorded, but by being Louris and Olson’s most lucid-ever narrative. Ironically, the line could stand as a thesis for all of the album’s lyrical nonsense, the foggy words that their soulful, intertwined voices and oddly veering melodies make clear every time.
“What the mind forgets,” Mark Olson and Gary Louris prove again and again on Ready For The Flood, “the soul retains.”
Ready For The Flood, official “About The Album” video