Mark Olson

Mark Olson

Mark Olson

Many Colored Kite

Ryko Records

When Mark Olson left the Jayhawks in 1995 at arguably the height of the alt-country band’s popularity, he undoubtedly disappointed more than a few fans and caused many others to scratch their heads. After all, he had founded the band and with fellow Jayhawk Gary Louris had created great harmonies and great songs on albums like 1991’s Hollywood Town Hall and 1995’s Tomorrow the Green Grass. But instead of choosing to chase greater success with the band, Olson decided he needed to follow his muse and do music more on his own terms. It’s abundantly clear from a listen to Many Colored Kite that 15 years later, Olson is still doing exactly that.

Looking nothing like a ’90s rock star and every bit like a sweater-vested college professor these days, Olson sounds relentlessly upbeat and zen-like on this record as he opines about love and the wonders of nature. Opener “Little Bird of Freedom” has a pleasant acoustic jangle that should appeal to plenty of Jayhawks fans and a nice harmony vocal from Jolie Holland. Although much of the album lyrically finds Olson basking in the glow of a happy present tense, he occasionally gets nostalgic. “These are the days I remember / To live again in the country / To dream again as we once did,” he sings.

The solo acoustic “Morning Dove” finds Olson remembering “dark dreams from childhood.” But it’s also here that he proclaims “Praise the love and praise the light of the day… my loved one walks on water.” The loved one in question may be Olson’s girlfriend and musical partner Ingunn Ringvold, who contributes harmonies to many of the tracks here (Vashti Bunyan also contributes vocals). Love song-wise, Olson also offers the sweet Jayhawks-like “Bluebell Song” in which he sings evocatively about getting lost “in the moment of your smile.”

Producer Beau Raymond (who also manned the board for 2008’s Olson-Louris reunion album Ready for the Flood) generally keeps things simple and uncluttered, though the album’s title track is more fleshed-out instrumentally with a gentle groove. “Beehive” adds a lovely string section to complement Olson’s finger-picked guitar. There are more strings on “Your Life Beside Us,” which sounds like vintage ’70s mellow gold. You can just imagine somebody like Bobby Goldsboro cutting this one back in the day. Piano and some fuzz-box electric guitar keep things interesting on the eccentric “Scholastica.” “Your eyes are open for me to see now / Walking on the shores of goodbye,” he sings. The ambitious “Kingsnake,” which brings more strings and piano to the party, sounds something like a really good R.E.M. ballad (think “Nightswimming” or “Hairshirt”). “We have hopes for restoration / We have our humanity,” Olson sings.

But the strongest song here may be “Wind and Rain,” which features more beautiful harmonies and more of Olson’s infectiously positive outlook. “Reach out for tomorrow / Life can be you and me.” The song includes a spoken word remembrance of a childhood family vacation that ends with Olson asking “Isn’t that what we want for ourselves, a place to live, some work to do, and our loved ones to be with?”

Olson seems to be a guy who is deeply spiritual about appreciating the simple things in life, from the first sign of spring to a woman’s smile. He continues to create music on his own terms and wander his own path. We’re lucky to get a chance to float along with him on his Many Colored Kite.

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