The Jayhawks, veteran poster kids for how major labels fail some of the most talented artists. The Minneapolis band has endured nearly 20 years of tough breaks — deep production debt, record-label collapse, the departure of coleader Mark Olson and a subsequent revolving-door lineup. Yet the music has rarely flagged. (Lost Highway plans to release the Jayhawks’ full oeuvre in a vinyl-only boxed set later this year.) Rainy Day Music follows 2000’s criminally slept-on ”Smile,” the apex of their evolution from dusty, Crazy Horse-riding country-rockers to baroque pop-rock renovators of the Hotel California. Folk-rock laced with banjos, accordions, and pedal steel, ”Music” is the roots move one suspects fans have wanted for years, its classic rock flavor echoing the Byrds, CSNY, and Poco. It’s a handsome, cozy set. Yet one misses the old guitar fireworks and even the lush pop-craft. It’s almost as if, freed to be themselves, the Jayhawks need to refigure who they are, or want to be.
Hopefully their label will give them room to do that, since frontman-songwriter Gary Louris — like Williams and fellow Highway-man Ryan Adams — aspires to write songs for the ages, not just for this week’s pop chart. As Williams sings on ”Fruits of My Labor,” ”Baby, if it’s all the same/Take the glory any day over the fame.” Better advice for any artist would be hard to come by.