Gary Louris began pulling the Jayhawks in a pop-oriented direction after co-songwriter Mark Olson’s departure in 1995, and his solo debut recalls those later Jayhawks albums.
Vagabonds stirs a strong country-rock undercurrent into a pop idiom that’s both atmospheric and a tad baroque. Like countrypolitan without the starched veneer, there’s a gentle, ambling charm to these dulcet arrangements that feels very down-to-earth. Not everything is as soft-focus as the album-ending “Meandering,” which floats over a tinkling, finger-picked acoustic part like the tympani of rain, with Louris’s wavering tenor leading into a choir of soft oooh-ing voices (including, apparently, Susanna Hoffs and Jenny Lewis).
One of the album’s great strengths is the seamless tone across its 10 tracks, even thematically — the dragging, bluesy ambivalence of “I Wanna Get High” is followed by the harmonica-driven title track, an outlaw ballad involving marijuana growers, an organ part suggesting The Band, and that angelic choir again.
There’s so much to enjoy here, it’s hard to choose favorites, though it’d be hard to argue against the greasy country-soul of “Omaha Nights.” Louris ponders our place in the universe, concluding that the only way to heaven is “the power of devotion.” That doesn’t necessarily preclude a little sinning, judging from the way the choir heralds those Omaha nights. Naturally, it’s followed by the ’70s soft-rock/folk of “To Die a Happy Man,” which carries the philosophical thread through a wonderful twisting series of tender lyrical couplets expressing his devotion.
While Louris deserves plenty of credit, the full, warm, yet unobtrusive production — courtesy of Chris Robinson of The Black Crowes and Thom Monahan (Pernice Brothers, Devendra Banhart) — is noteworthy. The top-to-bottom strength of Louris’s debut suggests that he should extend the Jayhawks’ hiatus.
— Chris Parker