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When we last heard from Minneapolis-based y’alternative mainstays the Jayhawks, on 2000’s quasi-concept disc Smile, they killed off their album’s main character in the screeching-feedback car-crash finale “Baby Baby Baby.” It’s fitting, then, that the penultimate track on the new Rainy Day Music moves into the afterlife, asking, “Will I See You in Heaven”? A beautifully rendered, distortion-free waltz, the song fulfills the band’s longstanding one-glorious-but-sorta-lugubrious-separation-anxiety-song-per-disc requirement while showing that things here on Earth have moved on: With co-vocalists Karen Grotberg and Mark Olson long gone, frontman Gary Louris’ honey-soaked tenor, sounding better than ever, blends well with the earthier tones of skinsmeister Tim O’Reagan. Elsewhere, the band gamely moves further down the same vein it’s been mining for years. The midtempo, upbeat “One Man’s Problem” depicts a newly single guy too busy thinking about getting over it to actually do it. The verses of “Angelyne” apologize for inadequacy even as the bridge warns, “Don’t you tell me how to live my life.” And the bus-trip number “Tampa to Tulsa” ups the ante a bit with some early-’00s angst (“Picking up nothing but stock quotes/On a GI’s radio/It’s giving me nothing but false hopes”). Still, it sounds as if something’s missing. At least three of the group’s four previous albums have sounded like the work of a strong but commercially marginalized band trying to bust out of the club scene for good. Rainy Day Music is well-crafted and thoughtfully arranged, sure, but it seems modest by comparison. There’s nothing here that matches the aural ambition of their earlier workHollywood Town Hall’s roughed-up “Waiting for the Sun,” which actually charted, or Smile’s rocked-out “Life Floats By,” which never had a chance. But if life floats by, it also goes on: Even though Smile reaped little more than some critical plaudits and play on a Ralph Lauren ad, the ‘Hawks are still able to make records. On Rainy Day Music, they do so well, and on their own terms. The result may not be alt-country heaven, but I can easily imagine a far worse purgatory. Joe Dempsey
The Jayhawks perform at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 8, at the Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria. For more information, call (703) 549-7500.