They may not have the image or name recognition of many of their peers, but the Jayhawks’ latest release, Rainy Day Music, proves that the group has the complete package of musical and writing skills many of their contemporaries lack.

On Rainy Day Music, the Jayhawks’ seventh studio album, the band returns to their trademark alternative-country sound after experimenting with more pop-styled songs on 1999’s Smile. Led by guitarist and principal songwriter Gary Louris, percussionist Tim O’Reagan, and bassist Marc Perlman, the Jayhawks have produced a finely-textured album through their endearing and ambitious use of simple folk-flavored melodies and arrangements.

Unlike Smile’s more experimental compositions, Rainy Day Music sees the Jayhawks relying on more traditional musical styles. The album’s 14 songs are primarily driven by jangly acoustic guitars, subtle electric guitar work, and sentimental lyrical imagery. Louris displays his considerable songwriting talents on well-crafted gems such as the bittersweet rocker “Tailspin” and the folky, upbeat “Angelyne”. This commitment to roots-rock results in an elegant, contemplative atmosphere that permeates the album from its first note to its last.

But the aspect of the Jayhawks’ music that shines most strongly on Rainy Day Music is versatile vocal performance. Louris’ tender, melodic voice trembles with passion on wistful songs like the gentle “All the Right Reasons” and the electric guitar-driven “Eyes of Sarahjane.” The band’s use of airy harmony vocals adds a haunting dimension that enhances the songs’ pensive lyrical landscapes. Nowhere are these harmonies more effective than in the beautiful acoustic ballad “Will I See You in Heaven,” an emotional and melancholy song that poignantly deals with mortality. “Thought we could live forever/but there’s more to life than we’ll ever know/tell me why’d you have to leave so soon/when I’ve got a thousand questions to ask of you.”

Despite the band’s determination to make a live-sounding, folk-influenced record, several songs also reflect the band’s alternative influences. The dramatic “Don’t Let the World Get in Your Way” uses orchestration and electric guitars to create a majestic ambience reminiscent of David Bowie’s early works. And the disc’s lead track, “Stumbling Through the Dark,” owes as much to modern pop and rock influences as it does to more traditional ones.

Perhaps Rainy Day Music’s only fault is an occasional sameness accentuated in the album’s lesser songs. “Come to the Water” is one such tune, and as a result ends up sounding rushed and lyrically cliched. But such rare misfires are substantially outweighed by the Jayhawks’ superior singing, songwriting and performance skills.

Rainy Day Music also features appearances by such notables as Wallflowers frontman Jakob Dylan, former Eagles guitarist Bernie Leadon, and indie pop-rocker Matthew Sweet. Fittingly, each performer’s contribution to the record blends seamlessly with the music without drawing attention away from the songs themselves.

While it is true that the Jayhawks’ style does not fit today’s popular music format, their nuanced vocal and instrumental stylings and adept songwriting make Rainy Day Music a true gem. The album is accessible to the average music fan without deviating from the musical trademarks their fan base has come to expect. In a day when few artists manage to produce a complete, quality album, the Jayhawks have done so in a remarkable fashion.

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