With no band reunion in sight, diehard fans of the late, great Jayhawks will have to settle in the future for various repackaged favorites and previously unheard treasures from the vault, but the current void is filled to overflowing by former front man Gary Louris' solo debut.
Vagabonds, produced in Los Angeles by the Black Crowes' Chris Robinson and featuring a sterling SoCal supporting cast that includes guest vocalists Robinson, Susanna Hoffs, and Jenny Lewis, hearkens back to influential sounds that reverberated out of Laurel Canyon nearly 40 years ago and gave impetus to the modern Americana movement.
From the muted lushness of its cover art to the vibey, mid-tempo radiance of the ten songs within, the album captures a landmark era's magical confluence of psychedelia, country, folk, and pop, without ever sounding retro or nostalgic.
In fact, Louris conjures the early-1970s spirit of contemplation and discovery with the broadened perspective of a mature artist equally resistant to cynicism but far wiser to the pitfalls of wretched excess. It's a recurring theme in his work that the answers to certain daunting questions simply aren't forthcoming, and learning to thrive in uncertainty's shadow is half the battle. The beauty and subtle power of Louris' music offer stirring proof of what's possible.
"True Blue" and "Omaha Nights," the gorgeous pair of finely textured gems that open Vagabonds, soar and sway to glorious, gospel-kissed effect, with Josh Grange's liquid pedal steel adding sublime instrumental shading to the former, Adam McDougal's cascading piano providing similar coloration to the latter. With the mood properly set, Louris, in peak vocal form and playing it low-key and ensemble-conscious on guitar, proceeds to bust out one melodic jewel after another. There's not an ounce of dead weight in these grooves, and songs like the aforementioned duo, "Black Grass," "We'll Get By," and the title track can hang proudly with anything in the Jayhawks repertoire.
Call it back to the future, fast forward to the past, or, better yet, how about state-of-the-art American roots music for discriminating ears? By any description, this one is absolutely essential listening. • Mike Thomas