Smile is The Jayhawks sixth studio album, its second release without Mark Olson. As much as I enjoyed Olson and Gary Louris’ work on alt-country classic Hollywood Town Hall the new direction suits them even better.
I suppose I’ll never be a “serious” rock critic. Doing a little research on Smile I find a lot of the reviews when the album came out were… tepid, at best. So-called Dean of American Rock Critics Robert Christgau gives little love to The Jayhawks and gives Smile a paltry C. To paraphrase a rather famous saying, I may not know much about music, but I do know what I like. And I do like, nay, love Smile. Unabashedly, emphatically, and joyously.
For the record, I’m referring to the original release of Smile and not the 2014 expanded reissue. Extra material is nice, but non-essential in my opinion. None of the new material on the reissue feels like it adds to the album, and it’s probably just as well without it. That may just be my “get off my lawn” reaction, though, to new songs that I’m unfamiliar with.
A melancholy smile
“Smile,” the album’s title track, is mid-tempo pop with strings to sweeten the deal and lots of harmony on the chorus. The production feels a little heavy, but only if you spend a lot of time thinking about it. I don’t, I get lost in the melody straight away and just let it run. For a song titled “Smile,” it does have a big touch of melancholy about it.
Do I spot some Byrds influence on “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me”? It feels that way to me. It’s a pretty straight-forward pop-rock tune with some ringing guitar, Louris slightly ragged voice engaging as always. “We’re gonna stay together for a million years,” they sing, and you can almost believe it.
“What Led Me To This Town,” is a lush and lazy masterpiece. “Woke up one day, my dreams were gone / what lead me to this town?” is the country influence rearing its head, but the tune is pure pop.
One of my favorite Jayhawks tunes
“A Break in the Clouds” may be my favorite Jayhawks tune. “Sometimes I see memories, like a film that never stops / although I know how it ends, I can’t help but watch.” How can you not love that line? And then there’s the bluesy guitar that pervades the song, and the harmonies, and the … everything. Just give it a listen and tell me it’s not a great song, I dare you. By the time the piano fades at the end, I’m just entirely transported away.
Wisely, they kick up the tempo and mood with “Queen of the World.” I’m also deeply in love with “Broken Harpoon,” which isn’t too far removed from “Clouds.”
“Life Floats By” is an unrestrained rocker, lots of feedback and a great backbeat. “(In My) Wildest Dreams” seems to echo The Moody Blues’ “Your Wildest Dreams,” and I don’t just mean lyrically. The chorus doesn’t sound like a copy, but there’s (to me, in my definitely non-music expert opinion) some overlap in phrasing, etc. Play them back to back, they’re very different songs, but there’s a little nod.
It takes more than a little hubris to title a song “Baby, Baby, Baby” – but rather than a empty headed and bland pop song, you get a harder edged rocker that has more than a little pathos to it. The album closes out on this one, drained and spent after leaving everything on the stage. More than 16 years after Smile was released, it still sounds fresh and inviting to me. Damn the critics, this one is worth revisiting over and over again.