The Jayhawks' "Back Roads and Abandoned Motels" is an album mostly made up of songs front man Gary Louris wrote or co-wrote for other projects, ranging from the Dixie Chicks to Jakob Dylan. For the most part, these songs just sound like great Jayhawks songs because that Louris vocal quiver is one of Americana music's most recognizable and heart-tugging sonic signatures.
Therefore, it's momentarily off-putting when Karen Grotberg takes the lead on album-opener "Come Cryin' to Me," which was written for a Natalie Maines solo album. This recording sounds closer to an Aimee Mann track, than anything resembling typical Jayhawks material. The clear highlight is "Gonna Be a Darkness," which Louris wrote with Dylan. Its lyric describes the somber scene of a funeral in such tragic detail, it will make you flashback to every funeral you've ever attended. "There's gonna be a darkness," Louris warns, "Maybe colder than you guessed." There's no way to precisely predict how any funeral will go, but the darkness of death's finality is unavoidable. This is prime Nick Cave material, only it isn't Nick Cave that wrote and recorded it.
"Bitter End" is another song about death and one Louris also wrote with the Dixie Chicks. However, with the track's gentle mandolin and fiddle accompaniment, matched to Louris' distinctively emotive lead vocal, it makes for a much brighter farewell than "Gonna Be a Darkness." The two new tracks ("Carry You to Safety" and "Leaving Detroit") aren't bad; just not up there with Jayhawks' best. "Leaving Detroit" is the better of the two, as it's a lovely, sad, leaving song.
"Back Roads and Abandoned Motels" is further proof, as if such proof were even necessary, of Louris' strong songwriting skills. Whether he's penning for his band, or for others, Louris just doesn't create any junk. It may just keep us satisfied until the next Jayhawks studio album of new material.