Alt-country or roots-rock or No Depression or whatever can be kinda tiresome. For every Uncle Tupelo or Scud Mountain Boys, there's some shaggy band of dad-rockers with more flannel than chops, whining about how no one makes good music anymore, everything's plastic and overproduced, there's no heart, blah blah blah. Frankly, the self righteousness and old-fogeyism is a turn off, especially when the complainers are churning out twangy, fiddle-haunted, dead dull dirges and wondering why no one wants to hear 'em.
That said, the punk-inspired DIY aesthetic combined with the handcrafted honesty and often breathtaking imagery of country and folk can be a heady concoction when done right. There's a power and a weight peculiar to the music of Americana, a special kind of beauty to be found. And the Jayhawks found it.
Emerging from the Minneapolis scene of the '80s, birthplace of post-hardcore prodigies the Replacements and Husker Du (among others), the Jayhawks found a home on the city's legendary Twin/Tone label. From the beginning, they wore their love of old-timey music on their jean jacket sleeves, reveling in homespun harmonizing and ragged guitars, taking cues from country-rock-inflected outfits like the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Byrds, the Band, and CCR, and staking their own rootsy territory in the Great White North. And they excelled at their approach right from the start, cranking out their accomplished self-titled debut in 1986 and following it up with the superlative Blue Earth in '89.
Of course, it helped that, at the time, the Jayhawks were saddled with an amazing songwriter in Mark Olson, who was occasionally helped out by lead guitarist Gary Louris (no slouch). Olson boasts a nicely expressive voice, a knack for imagery, and an ear for hooks. Louris knows his way around the frets, and, on Blue Earth, Marc Perlman and Thad Spencer (bass and drums, respectively) more than hold the rhythm section down.
Blue Earth (named, I assume, after the river in Minnesota) was actually a bunch of demos designed to land a Twin/Tone signing, a fact that belies the upper-deck songcraft and altogether self-assuredness of this collection. It's hard to describe these songs without using the word "beautiful" or its synonyms. Pretty doesn't cut it. On track after track, the Jayhawks manage to deliver beautiful sentiments wrapped up in gorgeous melodies, set off by the simplicity and sincerity of the arrangements. And there's enough distortion to remind you that, in the end, it's only rock 'n' roll, tarnished and torn in all the right spots but maintaining its crystalline tunefulness throughout.
The LP is a 12-song parade of standouts. "Two Angels" (which was re-recorded for the more polished Hollywood Town Hall, the Jayhawks' relative breakthrough on Def American) shuffles its way through its jaunty lament, snares snapping and pedal steel keening behind soaring dual vocal harmonies. The blinding guitar lines and brash harmonica of "Will I Be Married" never fail to raise a smile, and the contemplative "Commonplace Streets," with its loser's laments and self-doubt bolstered by Louris's crazymaking leads, is hypnotically thrilling. "Ain't No End"'s mournful air devastates: "Oh Lord," wails Olson, "Ain't no end/ Left in one thing you try to kill," as chords build steadily to a rousing crescendo, finally collapsing on themselves in a baleful racket.
Blue Earth is one of the finest alt-country LPs ever released, the transcript of a band perfecting its sound. Here, on a batch of songs redolent of long distances, empty spaces, gravel roads, shabby boarding houses, and broken hearts, the Jayhawks straddle perfectly the line between rock and country, delivering each line like they've lived it. No depression, indeed.