It was clear from their first recordings that the combination of Mark Olson and Gary Louris was a key part of the Jayhawks' magic, but it wasn't until Olson left the group after the release of 1995's Tomorrow the Green Grass that it became clear just how vital their collaboration as songwriters and vocalists was to the band's best work. While Louris kept the Jayhawks together and made some fine records, and Olson cut some compelling solo albums as well as recording with Victoria Williams in the Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers, it was hard not to realize that neither artist was as strong on their own as they were together. Olson and Louris recorded an acoustic album together in 2008, Ready for the Flood, that sounded stiff and tentative, but a couple years of writing and road work has made all the difference, and their reunion with fellow Jayhawks Marc Perlman, Karen Grotberg, and Tim O'Reagan, Mockingbird Time, is easily the group's strongest and most cleanly focused album since their 1992 masterpiece Hollywood Town Hall. In fact, Mockingbird Time, more than Tomorrow the Green Grass, sounds like the long awaited follow-up to that great album; it never suggests the Jayhawks are trying to slavishly copy their early-'90s sound, but the homey, literate interplay between Olson and Louris, the way Grotberg's keyboards complement the fuzzy eloquence of Louris' electric guitar, and the understated strength of Perlman's bass and O'Reagan's drumming recalls the elemental emotional power and unobtrusive craft of Hollywood Town Hall. Simply having Olson and Louris together isn't the only factor that makes this album so good, but their harmonies are as beautiful and unusual as ever, and the way their lyrical voices mesh confirms they bring out the best in one another. If the Jayhawks' post-Olson work may have been more stylistically ambitious, Mockingbird Time cuts to the core of what they do best: evocative songs, striking vocals, and a handful of musicians who perform with precision and plenty of heart. Mockingbird Time is a simple but richly rewarding example of what the Jayhawks do better than anyone, and serves as a potent reminder that they're one of the finest American bands of their time.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming