Gary Louris was already a hero of the folk-rock revival when he released his first solo effort, Vagabonds. He’s been a member of The Jayhawks since the release of their debut in 1986. With a knack for tight harmonies, honest and often melancholic songwriting, and deft instrumental skills, Louris and The Jayhawks have been among the leaders of the alt-country movement ever since. Louris was also a member of the supergroup Golden Smog, whose Down The Old Mainstream we reviewed last year. Despite his success with those groups, Louris always longed to make a solo album. In 2008, he finally released Vagabonds. The beautifully organic, 10-track collection has recently been reissued by Run Out Groove on limited edition 180-gram vinyl in a newly designed gatefold sleeve. ROG’s deluxe presentation celebrates the album’s tenth anniversary with an additional album’s worth of outtakes, vault material, and other bonus material – most of which has never been available on physical media before.
For Vagabonds, Gary Louris teamed up with Chris Robinson, formerly of The Black Crowes, who served as the producer. As Louris remembers in his liner notes, “Chris sifted through all the demos I had made in my little basement studio in Minneapolis, and together we whittled down the list [to] make a cohesive album… yes, a real album , that is what I wanted to make, with real people sitting in a room together and feeding off each other both musically and personally.
Robinson assembled the backing band – including Joshua Grange on pedal steel, Adam MacDougal on keys, Otto Hauser on drums, and Jonathan Wilson on organ, guitar, banjo, and vocals – and they all set up in Laurel Canyon and recorded the songs in only eight days, with the band in one room together and Louris in a nearby isolation booth.
The result is a remarkable collection of folk-rock-country earworms penned by Louris on which everyone involved is giving their all. Given where it was recorded and Louris’ folk and classic rock influences, it’s no wonder the tracks seem to harken back from another era. But the songs don’t come off as pastiches or carbon copies of music gone by. That has a lot to do with the songs’ production. Sonically, the album somehow seems to occupy two spheres: it’s simultaneously down-home, yet gorgeously atmospheric. The songs are rooted in that classic singer-songwriter aesthetic, but seem to bloom into something more — something that’s both intimate and spacious, and altogether delectable.
The album starts with “True Blue,” which was also its lead single. It’s the perfect exemplar of the unique sonic fingerprint of the album: acoustic-based with an intimate and yearning vocal and tasteful piano accompaniment. Slowly, more and more elements are added: pedal steel guitar, organ, bass, and a choir featuring Jonathan Wilson, Jenny Lewis, Chris Robinson, and The Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs. The dynamic track shines on Run Out Groove’s pressing, which was mastered for vinyl by Pete Weiss at Verdant Studios with lacquers cut by Jeff Powell at Sam Phillips Recording Studio, and pressed at Record Industry.
“Omaha Nights” follows, a catchy bluesy rocker with soul-searching lyrics. “All my days are numbered,” Louris sings, “Are they slipping through my fingers? / Am I singing melodies all meant for other singers? Occupying spaces that were clearly meant for others? Am I growing old in the arms of the wrong lover?” Each verse is increasingly existential in its scope: “Will we find what we want, along this finite journey / Is it here that sense appears, or are we merely learning / That money leads to power, and power to corruption?” But all these lofty questions seem to pass with the thought of Omaha nights, which will no doubt “set [the narrator] free” and “make it alright.” Once again, the track highlights Louris’s talent for marrying catchy melodies, infectious grooves, and thoughtful lyrics.
“To Die a Happy Man,” meanwhile, is a tender and intimate love song with delicate picking and music box-like piano additions. Louris’s vocal remains up-front in the soundstage that makes ample space for Joshua Grange’s pedal steel and other atmospheric elements before shifting into a gospel/country-rock breakdown. Louris’s country-rock roots are also on display on “She Only Calls Me on Sundays,” a waltz about a lost love that at times recalls George Harrison’s “Behind That Locked Door.” “We’ll Get By” – the closing number on Side One – features a gorgeous blend of six- and twelve-string guitars, a choir of vocals, and organ and piano. Once again, the atmospheric production and dramatic sonic build elevates the already-beautiful track into something truly special.
Side Two begins with the gentle and breezy “Black Grass.” Louris’s vocal floats with the help of ample reverb and delay, as keyboard parts swirl across the soundstage in a dreamy interlude, leading into a gorgeous wordless vocal harmony, a harmonica solo, and a rocking key change section. Another highlight of this side is the title track, “Vagabonds,” with its rousing singalong finale. “Meandering,” the closing track, is another stunner. Here, Louris utilizes a Leonard Cohen-esque fingerpicking technique while singing a tender ballad. The shimmering accompaniment includes gentle piano work, rolling cymbals, and dreamy keyboards. It’s a beautiful closer to an album which rewards repeated listens – full of joyous, immediate music, and a heavy dose of chemistry and synergy between all the performers.
But Run Out Groove offers listeners more than just the ten tracks on the core album. The reissue adds on 11 bonus tracks, including iTunes and Amazon bonus tracks that make their physical media debut, a previously unreleased outtake from the sessions, and a full side of solo acoustic renditions of album cuts (previously only available on the Acoustic Vagabonds EP). “Three Too Many” is one such iTunes bonus track. Though it didn’t make it onto the album, the track still cooks in all its Byrdsy-ness. Another highlight is the tender outtake “Baby, Let Me Take Care of You,” which had previously appeared as an Amazon digital bonus track, though it would have fit well alongside any of the tracks on the album proper. Side Three also includes the dynamic and spacey instrumental “Fall Day,” another Amazon bonus track which makes its physical debut here. The synth and acoustic guitar number “Girl in the Window” also features, rescued from the vault and released for the first time on this reissue. Side D, meanwhile, features six reinterpretations of Vagabonds material, performed solo by Louris on vocals and acoustic guitar. These tracks were previously only available on the EP Acoustic Vagabonds. Together, the bare bones renderings spotlight the strength of Louris’s songwriting. With the production stripped away, the tracks are even more hard-hitting.
Our copy of Vagabonds was flat and quiet, providing the perfect experience for enjoying the music in all its depth and clarity. The discs are housed inside black, poly-lined inner sleeves and placed in a Stoughton-printed, tip-on gatefold sleeve featuring updated album art. Also included is an insert with pictures from the Vagabonds sessions and a statement from Louris about the creation of the album.
In all, Run Out Groove knocks it out of the park with this one with a flawless pressing; deluxe packaging; compelling bonus tracks; and, most importantly, an album full of brilliant material. With all the boxes ticked, Vagabonds – Expanded Edition is sure to please! You can pick up a copy wherever fine music is sold, including online at Music Direct, Soundstage Direct, Acoustic Sounds, Elusive Disc, and Bull Moose.