Rainy Day just always gets you down
Country music. Who even knows what it is anymore. And there are the country radio stations. They play the clichéd stuff that we expect them to play. Lost the dog, lost the woman, lost the pick-up, lost something else. That’s country music. And then there are the big names: Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Willie Nelson. Names bigger than the men themselves could ever be in real life. But they are not part of the country music cliché. Their music does not require a twang, a slide guitar, or a good ole’ boy lifestyle. Everybody knows and can respect these musicians. In one way, they play for an entire country, and in another way, they are just plain good country musicians.
Let’s look beyond the classics to country music, 21st century. For those who like labels, we’re talking about “alt-country”. A new breed of “country” musicians have taken the stage, drawing on roots country, contemporary country, rock and roll, and the radio friendly alternative music that was normalized on the radio of the 1990s. Contemporary country and rock and roll are both derivative of roots country. And alt-rock draws from rock and roll, right? So, alt-country is just another combination of musical trends in other words? That’s right. There is nothing especially new about alt-country — except the return (or at least the possibility or a return) to a less fragmented audience. Everybody can find something likable about alt-country.
Which brings us to the latest alt-country it-boys: the Jayhawks. The Minneapolis band, who have been together for nearly two decades, shoot down the middle with Rainy Day Music, their latest release. Coming from the American and Lost Highway labels, RDM was destined to be an attention-grabbing country record. The Jayhawks’ label mates include Johnny Cash and the alt-country figurehead, Ryan Adams.
Since the release comes from a music factory you would expect it to have a certain predictability. Almost all of the fourteen songs are about either being lost or about a girl. Sometimes it’s about a girl being lost. You can only wonder when just about every song ever written is about one of these two things.
The opening track, “Stumbling Through the Dark,” regardless of its subject, is melodic enough to tell the listener that these guys are good. The thematic simplicity is matched by the insightful nature of the Jayhawks’ music. Every guitar string is comfortable, and every harmony is smooth to the ear.
But by the second track, the music is already getting a little tiresome. “Tailspin” features the refrain: “You’re in a tailspin, running out of your head,” a traumatizing eight times. This happens elsewhere on the album as well. Head-bobbing simplicity lends to head-splitting redundancy. By the end of some songs on the album, like “Save It For A Rainy Day” and “Come To The River,” you are a ready to get a pen and paper and write your own lyrics to these songs. Anything would be better than the same thing over and over again.
RDM trudges on with the constant refrain of likable, effortless songs that still frustrate with superfluous moments. Songs like “All The Right Reasons” and “Tampa to Tulsa” do shine. But you wonder if their luster is only because they are next to songs that just do not seem to live up to their potential.
The opening track is reprised at the close of the album, reminding you of those good times during Rainy Day Music’s up-and-down, fifty minute running time. The Jayhawks have managed to put together some beautiful songs. But too often, it is the same old song. To be sure, the album is worth keeping around for that rainy day when you want something easy and cozy. Otherwise, it is just a part of an alt-country, mini-genre that never really says anything new.