The Jayhawks' 1986 debut album (often called "The Bunkhouse Album" by fans for the label then-manager Charlie Pine founded to release it) documented the group when they were still young and green, and though it captures some strong and confident performances from a fine band, it's clear they were still a few years away from finding the sound that would make The Blue Earth and Hollywood Town Hall some of the most memorable music to come from the first wave of alt-country. The Jayhawks sounds more like a proper country album than anything else in their catalog; the rockabilly and vintage C&W licks lead guitarist Gary Louris had learned in his earlier group, Safety Last, were still a major part of his arsenal (especially on "Misery Tavern" and "Behind Bars"), and Cal Hand's pedal steel is a key part of the arrangements on tunes such as "Falling Star," "The Liquor Store Came First," and "Six Pack on the Dashboard." The pace is surprisingly peppy compared to the contemplative rhythms of the Jayhawks' best work (drummer Norm Rogers, who would later do a stylistic 180 and join Minneapolis noise-mongers the Cows, drives most of the tunes with a solid, uptempo shuffle), and though "Let the Critics Wonder" and "King of Kings" anticipate the sound of the band's classic era, most of the Bunkhouse album sounds like the work of a smart, lively country-rock band still looking for the approach that would truly set them apart. Mark Olson and Gary Louris' songwriting was skillful and literate, and the Jayhawks play with fire and imagination on their debut, but these 13 speedy numbers (which spin by in less than 38 minutes) mark a phase they were staring to outgrow even as they were recording this music; there's nothing here for anyone involved to be ashamed of, but The Jayhawks is still clearly juvenilia, enjoyable as it is.
The Jayhawks (aka The Bunkhouse Album) Review
by Mark Deming