Gary Louris has paved a career path that finds him moving from the fast lane of rock to the slower lanes of folk. The dividing line is the ever present sense of country blues that permeates his gentle ballads as well as his energetic rockers. Beginning in the late 1980s and running through the early 2000s Louris, as a member of The Jayhawks and Golden Smog, contributed to several of the era’s most outstanding alt-country albums. Vagabonds is his first foray into the world of solo artist and he’s chosen to take us on a languid side-road journey.
When someone works as closely as Louris did with his former band mates it is hard to distinguish what each individual brought to the table. Vagabonds offers insight into what is uniquely Louris and it appears sweet, sentimental tales, lovely blues infused melodies and pristine harmonies are at the heart of his writing. Despite the fact that Louris has slowed the pace there is a new pop sensibility to the 10 songs on the release. The production, lead by Chris Robinson (Black Crowes), is reminiscent of the Southern California groove of The Eagles, Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt circa 1975. You’ll find lots of piano driven bridges and acoustic rhythm guitar. “Black Grass” finds Louris channeling Paul Simon’s penchant for poetic prose and hushed harmony.
What I love best about Louris’ songs is his imagery; the man literally paints landscape portraits and then populates them with articulate characters. His songs maintain a mournful edge even when expressing something other than sadness as in “To Die A Happy Man.” Perhaps it’s that crooning steel pedal backdrop or the building chorus that refrains from really breaking loose as they sing “so beautiful, so beautiful.” “She Only Calls Me On Sundays” is another choir backed song that details the pain of loving an addict. This subject is revisited, albeit from the perspective of an internal battle, on “I Wanna Get High.” What is so amazing about these songs is how beautiful the melody and vocals are although Louris allows for a heavier and darker blues groove on the latter.
The two most outstanding tracks on the release are sure to garner comparison to the work of the Jayhawks. “Omaha Nights” is the most gregarious song on the release, with its electric guitar punctuations and lamentations for elusive happiness. It sounds like a lost track from The Jayhawks’ last release. Likewise the title track; its sound is so vintage Jayhawks that suddenly the realization comes upon you – those lead vocals and harmonies so associated with the band is really pure Louris. This time out Louris’ backing singers – referred to in the liner notes as The Laurel Canyon Family Choir – consist of Louris, Chris Robinson, Suzanna Hoffs (The Bangles) and Jenny Lewis (Rilo Kiley).