Mark Olson and His Voice

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Mark Olson
  • Mark Olson
With his recent album Many Colored Kite (Rykodisc), Mark Olson keeps one foot in cosmic folk and another in the sweet, post-Gram Parsons sound that initially earned him acclaim as a founding member of the Jayhawks. The new record underlines the quirks of his slightly croaky voice, an instrument with a somewhat unreliable pitch center. He seems to have realized that no voice complements his own better than that of his old Jayhawks partner Gary Louris, and they've been working together here and there since 2001. Last year the duo released Ready for the Flood (New West), a lovely, mostly acoustic outing—their first recording since Olson left the Jayhawks in 1995.

Earlier this year Lost Highway released the first CD reissue of the Jayhawks' self-titled 1986 debut album—usually called "The Bunkhouse Album," after the name of the one-off label that band manager Charlie Pine created for it. Until I got a copy, I'd assumed that 1989's The Blue Earth was the band's debut. The reissue captures a very young group still finding its way. Though the trademark harmony singing of Olson and Louris was already working, the songwriting was less impressive—its mix of post-Dylan folk-rock, old-school Nashville honky-tonk, and an attempt at Flying Burrito Brothers gloss was clunky in a way the band would soon leave behind. The record is more a curiosity than an essential part of the Jayhawks discography, but it has its charms. You can check out the song "Let the Critics Wonder," with Olson baldly aping Dylan, below.

Though it's true he's working more with Louris, Olson remains focused on his solo career. On Many Colored Kite he's at his best on the songs where he's joined by a strong second voice—such as the opening track, "Little Bird of Freedom," where he harmonizes with Jolie Holland (you can hear it below), and "No Time to Live Without Her," where Brit-folk veteran Vashti Bunyan adds some ethereal warmth. Many of the tunes benefit from the presence of Olson's girlfriend Ingunn Ringvold—who also cowrote a couple of the songs—though she sticks mostly to backing vocals. When he's all by himself, as on the string-kissed ballad "Beehive," his wobbly intonation can be a little hard to take.

Olson performs at Schubas on Friday accompanied only by guitarist Ray Woods, which means his voice will be front and center, for better or worse.

The Jayhawks: "Let the Critics Wonder":

Mark Olson: "Little Bird of Freedom":

photo: Ingunn Ringvold

Today's playlist:

François Houle, Cryptology (Between the Lines)
Crimetime Orchestra, Atomic Symphony featuring Sonny Simmons & Kork (Jazzaway)
Hansson & Karlsson, Hansson & Karlsson (Polydor)
Takahiro Kawaguchi and Shinjiro Yamaguchi, Hello (Ftarri)
Jazkamer, Eat Shit (Asspiss)

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