If the Jayhawks weren’t exactly the first band to pack up country and move it into the big city, they were at least one of the more seminal ones. Directly influencing city-mates Uncle Tupelo, members of which went on to crystallize the genre with Wilco, they established a clear template for what became known as alt-country, combining the textures and instrumentation of country with a dose of folk’s intense lyrical introspection.
That vein of introspection continues with Many Colored Kite, Mark Olson’s second solo album and third release in the last three years. Olson, along with Gary Louris, formed the foundation of the Jayhawks, and their collaboration on last year’s Ready for the Flood signaled a period of renewal following Olson’s exit from the group in 1995. Many Colored Kite prolongs that fallow stretch, offering 11 instances of formally simple songwriting that manage to stretch and beam despite their limited compositions.
Many Colored Kite could easily be a weak effort considering the tightly cinched quality of Olson’s voice, which, while unusually expressive, has the propensity to grow grating. Yet even without the countervailing balance of Louris’s suppler instrument, he’s able to keep things vocally fresh and diverse. The songs here maintain a tight focus and a small palette (largely acoustic, drums pushed back in the mix), but the careful control maintained over individual elements makes them uniformly strong. Opener “Little Bird of Freedom,” for example, is bare and simple on all counts, but its hushed melding of a sharp melody with shaded female vocals, which fill in and supplement Olson’s voice, helps create an ineffable sense of splendor. The title track achieves the same feeling with similar elements, also adding a flanging guitar part that’s barely noticeable but highly atmospheric.
Most of the tracks on the album operate in this same fashion, and Olson’s ability to center a song around the shivery hum from a cello’s bow is one of those quietly expressive abilities that can so easily be overlooked. Filled with and shaped around these kind of moments, Many Colored Kite is resolutely marked with sure signs of experience and skill.