The Jayhawks :: Sound of Lies (Re-visited)

Not long ago I noticed The Jayhawks 1997, transitional, album, Sound of Lies, was out of print, which surprised the hell out of me.

Like many “transitional” albums, Sound of Lies is (literally) the sound of a band re-grouping and re-defining themselves after the exit of founding, and key, member Mark Olson. Below, Drunkard pal, and blogger, J. Neas re-visits the LP, and not surprisingly deems it an often overlooked neo-classic.

Partnerships in art are a fickle business. Creativity is often bolstered by the idea-editing of working with a sympathetic, but critical, similarly minded person. At the same time, the frustration can build as conflicts become inevitable. In indie-rock we’ve seen it happen a dozen times – Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy, J. Mascis and Lou Barlow, even recently with Jason Isbell’s departure from the Drive-by Truckers. Stuff happens. But how do bands that have built themselves so firmly around the dynamics of more-than-one deal with the aftermath? If you’re Gary Louris, you plow ahead and make one of the most challenging and forward thinking albums you’ll ever record.

Sound of Lies, I’m sure, had a lot of people nervous. Founding-member Mark Olson’s amicable departure following Tomorrow the Green Grass was, for understandable reasons, of some concern to fans of the Jayhawks. For those fans, their fears would be born out in Sound of Lies, but these are the same fans that may have felt that the holding-pattern of Tomorrow the Green Grass was an acceptable outcome for a band that had just come off of producing the sublimely perfect Hollywood Town Hall. As much as a good album by the Jayhawks is still a great record by almost any measure, it just wasn’t that exciting. And bear in mind that, while music is not a competition (enter snarky comment HERE), Wilco had seriously upped the ante the previous year with the double-disc Being There, a sprawling masterwork that took the all-encompassing alt-country genre as its base and then went off in some seriously wicked directions all its own. If anyone was going to care about the Jayhawks anymore, it was time for a change.

Sound of Lies opening three songs take a little over 15 minutes to go past and half of the album’s 12 songs either pass or come very close to five minutes in length. So what did they do with the extra space? This is dark, orchestrated, classicist pop. Opener “The Man Who Loved Life” builds to a soaring, troubling chorus that belies the lyrics within. Followed by the strangely heavy “Think About It” (what that song must have sounded like live, jeez) and the soft, sadly wistful “Trouble,” the songs are engaging, despite their length and melancholic tone.

The album continues along with songs that are dark pop (“It’s Up to You,” “Haywire”), rave-ups (“Big Star,” “Sixteen Down”) and the dramatic, minor-key seeming-centerpiece, buried late in the record, “Dying on the Vine.” It’s the album’s longest song (a few seconds short of six minutes) and the most simultaneously claustrophobic and manic song on the record. Its driving guitar line and drum beat gives the lyrics an unwieldy insistence to them: “I want to be the first to say / Black or white but never gray / I don’t feel like me today / I’m dying in the shadow.” Whether Louris intended to invoke T.S. Eliot’s vision of the morally ambivalent via “The Hollow Men” or not (Eliot: “Between the idea / and the reality / between the motion / and the act / falls the shadow”), it’s a stark description of a person lost in the dissolution of a relationship, unsure of what the meaning behind anything is, even themselves.

It’s followed by an odd choice – the Jayhawks-debut of drummer Tim O’Reagan as a songwriter/singer. O’Reagan cut his teeth as a songwriter in the Leatherwoods before he became the Jayhawks’ drummer and he has a knack for it. But despite being a good song, “Bottomless Cup” seems almost out of place amongst the desolate symbolism of the rest of the album. The closing title-track recoups what mood is lost with its spare piano and guitar scaffolding – Louris’ voice coming in quiet, high, nearly cracking and as close to tears as a voice can sound on record. It’s an immaculate closing number.

There really is no other album like Sound of Lies in the Jayhawks’ catalog. It’s unmistakably a Jayhawks record, but as far as being comparable to anything before or after, good luck. The band would retreat with the follow up, Smile, crafting a sound much more in-debt to the sunny pop that always lay just under the surface. And their swan-song, Rainy Day Music, would combine that with the more acoustic-driven folk-pop that Louris so easily crafts, probably in his sleep or while eating a meal. Think of the ‘difficult, dark’ album in any band’s history, maybe after some catastrophic happening or departure of one member or another and you’ve pretty much got Sound of Lies nailed down. It has an often-questioned place in the the Jayhawks’ body of work, but it is a record that well deserves a second look and has proven itself, to me at least, to be worthy of many repeated listens.

The Jayhawks :: The Man Who Loved Life
MP3: The Jayhawks :: Dying on the Vine
Amazon: The Jayhawks – Sound of Lies

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11 thoughts on “The Jayhawks :: Sound of Lies (Re-visited)

  1. I was (and am) such a fan of the Jayhawks that I was devistated when I heard they broke up after TTGG and elated when they regrouped & were recording what was to become The Sound Of Lies. I worked for a record store at the the time, so when I got my grubby hands on the advance copy, I felt like it was Christmas ’76 again. After the first listen, I found it to be such a departure from their “sound” I almost cried…
    After cramming it into my ears about four more times, I had an epiphany.
    It really was a brilliant album. I saw both legs of the subsequent tour, met & spoke at length with both Louris and Perlman regarding the album (Louris was self-depricating & really seemed melancholly about the luke-warm reception of TSOL).
    I still listen to the album on a regular basis & agree with the writer 100%


  2. Good to see this one getting revisited. As a longtime fan who saw them play somewhere close to 10 times over the years, IMHO, Sound of Lies is the true masterpiece in the Jayhawks’ library. I remember my initial reluctance with the record when it came out because Olson was gone. But what was revealed was how much Gary Louris had brought to that collaboration. I don’t think Olson’s solo work can come close to what the Jayhawks did after his departure.

    I put this record aside after the first play and had to be convinced by a friend to give it another listen. How unlikely, but now I would stand here and suggest that this is one of the ten best albums of the 90’s.

    I would compare Sound of Lies thematically to Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours or Richard & Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out The Lights. It’s a desperate record about broken relationships. Claustrophobic and inevitable.

    That’s why I’d disagree slightly with you regarding Bottomless Cup. It’s the sound of a man holding on to a relationship he knows is falling apart…

    “You used to say “I love you”
    A hundred times a day
    What ya gonna say
    When you learn they turned me
    The day is gonna come
    For something to take you
    But’s clear
    Nothing comes near to you
    When you go
    I lower my sights”

    Sad, desperate and melancholy, Bottomless Cup is one of my favorite tracks on Lies. The lack of commercial success for the Jayhawks has always been a mystery to me. I would easily put them on the same level as Springsteen, Wilco, Steve Earle and hope someday we’ll have another record from them…

  3. Brilliant album. Stick In The Mud has been a favorite since I was in my second year of high school. The only songs I would constitute as not serving as being in the pantheon of classic Jayhawks songs are O’Regans and that’s just because of my preference for Louris. But as you note, it was the first non-Olson release, and god did Gary Louris prove what he could do. When push comes to shove Sound of Lies will end up one of the great albums of that time period and of all time. Smile was good and the next one after had it’s moments (great moments at that) but Sound Of Lies was the culmination of the Jayhawks. One of the best trifectas of all time.

  4. Great review. My favourite Jayhawks album and one of the most under rated albums I know of. C King, I always took it that Bottomless cup was a tribute to a mothers love.

  5. I always loved the original line-up’s harmonies but found many of their tracks seemed like half-songs played twice over rather than fully realized pieces. It has been a while since I gave The Sound of Lies a spin, but my recollection is that one of its strengths was its sense of ‘completion’.

  6. man, I loved the shit out of this cd

    listened to it so much, I got sick of it and gave it to my friend who orig. turned me on to the jayhawks as a thank you.

    thanks for these files, i may have to buy this one again.

    if you have not checked out ox, do it now and you will be happy

  7. I love all the Jayhawk’s stuff, I think they’re one of the great bands in the icon of American rock music. Sound of Lies is their masterpiece. I never get tired of listening to these songs. That isn’t how it started out. When the album came out in ’96, I remember I immediately bought it, listened to it one time, and put it away. I didn’t listen to it again for nearly 8 years. I suppose I wasn’t ready for it and it wasn’t what I was expecting. I’m not sure why I thought it sucked when I first heard it. But then I played it again and suddenly it resonated very deeply for me. This is an incredible album that will stand the test of time and one day will be recognized, I think, as an all-time great in the pantheon of American rock.

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