My favorite 100 albums of all time: #86 ("Hollywood Town Hall")
The Jayhawks are usually categorized as "alternative country" or "country rock," but neither label suffices to describe the band at its full power. Hollywood Town Hall, released in while founding member Mark Olson was still with the band, is definitely a snapshot of The Jayhawks operating on all cylinders.
Like R.E.M., The Jayhawks span multiple genres and audiences. Any cut from Hollywood Town Hall would be equally at home alongside 90s alternative rock, on a classic rock station, and would probably pass just fine on modern country stations as well. (I'm probably a bad judge of what fits on modern country, though.)
Love guitar-heavy rock? You'll find plenty to snack on throughout Hollywood Town Hall. There's searing guitar work all over the album, like the blistering close to "Wichita."
Vocal harmonies? Again, all over the album. It's not that Gary Louris or Olson have amazing voices in the classical sense, but the combination of voices in service of their songs produces pure joy. Interspersed with dexterous guitar work, sprinklings of piano and organ, and a solid rhythm section, there's plenty of magic throughout.
Take "Waiting for the Sun," the introductory track on Hollywood. Louris and Olson's voices join together like some sort of musical Voltron. Independently, they're fine, but joined together they have superpowers. They carry you along like you're floating on air, and then you're hit with guitar work that would have done George Harrison proud.
"Crowded in the Wings" brings a whopping dose of Neil Young-y flavor to the table. Harmonica, loose and friendly guitar, and a sort of no-rush approach to the song. The Jayhawks have a way of making songs with downbeat lyrics upbeat masterpieces. What's it about? Not really sure, because the lyrics are hints rather than a full story. The songs on Hollywood Town Hall are open to interpretation. But the music sounds like like a revelation.
The longing and hope contained in "Take Me With You (When You Go)" could power a small city, if those things were energy sources. Lyrically, it's wide open, but sometimes those are the best songs. What's the song about? Dunno, what do you want to be about? What are you going through, right now? Lost love? Homesickness? The song can work in a lot of scenarios.
If I were to ding Hollywood Town Hall for anything, it'd be that there's not a ton of variety between songs. While I love them all, it's sort of like choosing between Monet's Water Lilies. No doubt an art connoisseur can choose between the different paintings in the Water Lilies series, but it takes repeated viewings. Likewise, Hollywood Town Hall is like a set of snapshots of The Jayhawks that are kind of distinct, but you don't get the range you might see from contemporaries like R.E.M.
But, as all the songs on Hollywood Town Hall are entirely wonderful little slices of "alt country" or whatever genre The Jayhawks are supposed to be… that's really irrelevant. I love it for what it is, and if you give it a spin, I think you will too.