Golden Smog

  • Golden Smog
  • On Golden Smog EP (Crackpot) 1992  (Rykodisc) 1996 
  • Down by the Old Mainstream (Rykodisc) 1995 
  • Weird Tales (Rykodisc) 1998 
  • Blood on the Slacks (Lost Highway) 2007 
  • Another Fine Day (Lost Highway) 2008 
  • Stay Golden, Smog: The Best of Golden Smog – The Rykodisc Years (Rykodisc / Rhino) 2008 

On its debut, an EP of five items taken down from the ’60s/’70s covers cupboard, sometime 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. Amping up the band’s mysterious and comical mythologizing, Rykodisc sent out advances of the album in a complete-with-slip-case, booklet (the slightly oversized A History in Smog) and two make-believe CDs (Swingin’ Smog People and America’s Newest Shitmakers, boasting great song titles but, alas, no music) box set called 35 Years of Golden Smog.

Recording at Ardent in Memphis with Big Star drummer Jody Stephens taking Levy’s place, Golden Smog moved closer to easygoing Americana on Weird Tales. With Johnson mostly gravitating toward the Louris/Tweedy axis and only two Murphy songs, rock gets back-burnered here, although Tweedy’s “I Can’t Keep From Talking” and Louris’s “White Shell Road” do pick up the pace. The latter busts out a raging Tweedy guitar solo, which is welcome but incongruous. A well-crafted but mildly downcast and dull album, Weird Tales reaches its distinctive zenith in “Keys,” a chugging funk workout marred by a wobbly Johnson vocal.

Minneapolis pop genius Ed Ackerson (R.I.P.) co-produced Blood on the Slacks, a lightweight but enjoyable eight-song set that sounds more like a unified band effort than anything in the prior Smogverse — despite increased diversity in its assembly of writers and players. (Significantly, Tweedy is not in attendance this time.) In addition to a handsome straight cover of David Bowie’s “Starman,” the programme includes J. Mascis’s “Tarpit” and a Pirner-Johnson co-write (the brief samba-leaning instrumental “Magician”) alongside contributions from Murphy, Johnson, Louris and Perlman. The record uses three drummers: Peter Anderson (the Ocean Blue, Honeydogs), Linda Pitmon (Steve Wynn’s band, the Baseball Project, Filthy Friends and countless one-offs) and Perlman, while “Can’t Even Tie Your Own Shoes” adds a horn section.

With Ackerson back as co-producer, Another Fine Day is an absolutely wonderful rock record packed with great tunes and enthusiastic, energetic performances —the rollicking product of a resourceful band bursting with good ideas. Johnson is a potent force on the album, kicking things off with the odd but effective “You Make It Easy,” following it one track later with the winsome yacht rock of “5-22-02,” which could easily be mistaken for the Traveling Wilburys. In fact, Johnson co-wrote half of the album’s songs, including the wacky “Frying Pan Eyes,” the psychedelically weird “Beautiful Mind,” the blithely McCartneyesque piano pop of “I Can” and the album’s standout, “Corvette” (“don’t it blow your mind — the dream is never over”), a speeding group composition with joint vocals by Murphy and Louris, wah-wah rhythm guitar and skedaddle drumming by Pitmon . Murphy is also responsible for the raging “Hurricane,” the most exciting song he’s delivered since Soul Asylum. For welcome contrast, Tweedy and Louris combine handsomely on “Long Time Ago,” a lovely ode to childhood, while Perlman (the album’s bassist) brings the sweet love in “Cure for This.” Somehow, a cover of a Dave Davies Kinks song, “Strangers,” sung by Tweedy and Louris, slots right in like the missing piece of a jigsaw.

The Stay Golden compilation contains eight songs each from Mainstream and Weird Tales plus a bonus cover of Tweedy singing Brian Wilson’s “Love and Mercy” and an  early version of Weird Tales‘ “Until You Came Along .”

Golden Smog (Tweedy, Johnson, Louris, Murphy, Stephens, Perlman, joined by former Geraldine Fibbers violinist Jessy Greene, an occasional Smog adjunct) reunited in April 2022 to play two shows at First Avenue as part of a belated celebration of the legendary Minneapolis club’s 50th anniversary.

[Ira Robbins]

See also: Honeydogs, Jayhawks, Chris Mars, Run Westy Run, Soul Asylum, Uncle Tupelo