On its debut, an EP of five items taken down from the ’60s/’70s covers cupboard, Midwest supergroup Golden Smog pseudonymously included Minneapolitans Dan Murphy (Soul Asylum), Chris Mars (ex-Replacements), Gary Louris and Marc Perlman (Jayhawks) and Kraig Johnson (Run Westy Run). Imparting an acoustic/electric country-rock tilt in skillfully played arrangements, the part-time quintet offers unironic renditions of Thin Lizzy’s “Cowboy Song,” the Stones’ “Backstreet Girl” (the disc’s folky highlight), “Easy to Be Hard” (from Hair), the mysterious “Son (We’ve Kept the Room Just the Way You Left It)” and Bad Company’s “Shooting Star” (sung by guest Smogger Dave “Tony James” Pirner). (Trivia buffs note: the musicians’ made-up surnames derive from the streets on which they were born: Murphy, for instance, is David Spear-Way; Louris is Michael Macklyn-Drive.)
Beyond a deeper professional commitment, the replacement of Mars by drummer Noah Levy (Honeydogs) and the new chair pulled up around the fireplace for singer/guitarist Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, what makes the sextet’s second coming an entirely different proposition is that all but two of the fourteen songs are originals. Suffused with a comfy pals-on-a-porch feel, Down by the Old Mainstream doesn’t so much meld or showcase the various personalities as heap them all into a versatile “no depression” group any one of them could lead. All the voices sound like facets of the same person, and the songs (with the notable exception of Johnson’s nonsensical “He’s a Dick” and, to a lesser degree, a cover of Bobby Paterson’s clumsy “She Don’t Have to See You”) fit together like pieces of a nicely worn puzzle. The electric numbers (like Murphy’s “Ill Fated” and Ronnie Lane’s “Glad & Sorry”) are better than the acoustic ones (although Tweedy’s “Pecan Pie” is pretty inviting), and the Pirner-sung ballad “Nowhere Bound” works best of all, but this modest, heartfelt album is one on which the musicians’ pleasure at singing and playing arrives intact and affecting.