Back Roads and Abandoned Motels is an album by the Jayhawks featuring a set of songs written by the group's guitarist, singer, and frontman, Gary Louris...except they're not exactly Jayhawks songs. When he's not busy with the band, Louris has a sideline collaborating on tunes with other writers for other artists, and it's that body of work that the Jayhawks tackle on this album. Nine of Back Roads and Abandoned Motels' 11 tracks are numbers he wrote in tandem with members of the Dixie Chicks ("Everybody Knows," "Bitter End," and "Come Cryin' to Me"), Jakob Dylan ("Gonna Be a Darkness"), Scott Thomas ("Need You Tonight"), Carrie Rodriguez ("El Dorado"), Ari Hest ("Bird Never Flies"), Emerson Hart of Tonic ("Long Time Ago"), and the members of Wild Feathers ("Backwards Women"). One of the consequences of this is though these songs all carry a bit of Louris' lyrical and melodic stamp, they also have a somewhat different personality than much of his music, and that gives this album a slightly cooler and less cohesive feel than the average Jayhawks LP. ("Carry You to Safety" and "Leaving Detroit," which Louris wrote on his own, fit a bit more easily.) Louris also hands two lead vocals over to keyboard player Karen Grotberg ("Come Cryin' to Me," where she's a dead ringer for Aimee Mann, and "El Dorado"), while drummer Tim O'Reagan steps to the mike for "Gonna Be a Darkness" and "Long Time Ago." Having established what sets this apart from a common, garden-variety Jayhawks set, the big question is, is Back Roads and Abandoned Motels any good? The answer is a decisive yes -- despite the shifting outlook of the songwriting, the performances are sturdy and evocative throughout, revealing how well these musicians work with one another as they make the most of the dynamics of this subtle but resonant music. And vocalists Louris, Grotberg, and O'Reagan are all in superb form here, hitting their marks beautifully. In fact, after the experimentalism of 2016's Paging Mr. Proust, Back Roads and Abandoned Motels will certainly please more traditional-minded Jayhawks fans, as it often recalls the low-key pleasures of 2003's Rainy Day Music. The best songs on Back Roads and Abandoned Motels are a lovely reminder of what the Jayhawks have been doing so well for over 30 years, and if this album might make one wonder if Gary Louris is running low on songwriting ideas, he still leads a band to be reckoned with.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming