What is it about the Beach Boys that makes them so damn appealing to alt-country acts looking to go mainstream? First Wilco shed its steel guitar for sunny vibraphone melodies on Summer Teeth; now the Jayhawks have a determinedly chipper album called Smile. If you don't make the Beach Boys connection from the title (the Boys released Smiley Smile in 1967), the giddy pop songs will surely drive the point home. By connecting the dots between the band's age and reputation (fifteen years together, impeccable), a departed band leader (Mark Olson), a snazzy new producer (Bob Ezrin, who worked with KISS and Pink Floyd, but also Air Supply), its commercial success to date (unfairly lacking) and embarrassingly direct press materials ("radio-ready anthems," "bold, new territory!"), even those who aren't fans of such legendary Jayhawks albums as Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass will pick up on what's going on here. Yes, it's the dreaded Last Ditch Bid for Commercial Success. (If there were such thing as a rock-and-roll medical dictionary, this malady would be characterized by the above symptoms and prone to striking talented-but-graying bands who are owning up to their mortality.)
Viewed through this lens, the disappointing Smile makes more sense. The ragged roots anthems of old have mostly been replaced by "radio-ready anthems" like "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me," whose simple mid-tempo harmonizing recalls the pleasant mediocrity of the Traveling Wilburys. And most of the album's lyrics -- no poetry here, either -- seem targeted at your typical FM-radio listener (the title track's imploring chorus "Chin up, chin up/in your hour of despair," for instance, is way too precious). The aspiration for airplay is obvious in Ezrin's glossy overproduction and the wince-inducing drum loop (!) on "Somewhere in Ohio." But it's also evident in a subtler, more depressing way when you notice the contrast between these songs and the few that don't hew to the commercial mandate. "A Break in the Clouds," for instance, hints at what the post-Olson Jayhawks should have been: a band marked by smart, introspective songwriting and Gary Louris's lush, heartbreaking melodies. "What Led Me to This Town" and "Better Days" are two others that would have passed muster on Jayhawks albums of yore.
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On some level, you know the band hated doing this. One the same level, longtime fans will struggle with the "new" Jayhawks, aware that they can do better -- and deserve to.