When Jayhawks co-founder/singer-songwriter Mark Olson packed his bags a few years ago, no one really expected Gary Louris, his writing partner and the co-anchor of the group, to make much of the leftover pieces. Yet, Sound of Lies, the Jayhawks' 1997 album, the first one without Olson, sounded almost like . . . the Jayhawks with Olson. Yes, it's not the classic slab of rustic Americana that Hollywood Town Hall is, but it's a valiant effort nonetheless -- not so much an update as it is a next step for the band.
And Smile, the latest from the Louris-led Jayhawks, despite copping its title from Brian Wilson's long-lost, fractured heart/mind masterwork, is a pretty straightforward rock and roll record. The twisted country vines that used to run through the band's music aren't as obvious now (but if you know anything of the band's history, you can certainly sense their presence at the core). Louris has transformed -- no, developed -- the group into a jangly pop outfit at last ready for radio.
Regrettably, quite a bit of Smile slips into formulaic folk-rock. The acoustic tales of life and love among wide-open spaces play as clichés, and some of the more generic rockers don't fare much better. When Louris simmers down the sunshine rock enough to pen some genuine heartland songs (like the title tune), the often heavy-handed approach to the undemanding music (like on the fuzzy "Baby, Baby, Baby") -- much of it the handiwork of Pink Floyd producer Bob Ezrin -- is easy to overlook. Better still are the few moments here during which the band sticks close to roots -- its own and the alt-country conceptual ones. If the hook-driven "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me" doesn't finally wring out at least a radio hit for the Jayhawks, nothing will.