Stay Golden, Smog The Best of Golden Smog: The Rykodisc Years

Golden Smog

Rhino, 2008

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Let’s be clear about one thing from the get-go: Golden Smog is not a supergroup. 

Yes, it includes members of Soul Asylum (Dan Murphy), the Jayhawks (Gary Louris, Marc Perlman), Run Westy Run (Kraig Johnson) and Wilco (Jeff Tweedy), and has featured drummers from the Replacements (Chris Mars), the Honeydogs (Noah Levy) and Big Star (Jody Stephens), but as Perlman tells it in this new collection’s liner notes, “We put the kibosh on [the supergroup label] right away… None of us were that famous to begin with.”

What the Smog (as fans affectionately call them) have always been is a collection of friends whose paths crossed frequently on the fertile Minneapolis music scene and who over time discovered that they loved making music together.  Louris describes the band as ”an outlet… a way to rediscover what music was about.  The Smog always reminded us that we were kids playing music.”

The band’s roots trace to 1990, when Murphy, Louris and Johnson started playing one-off acoustic-trio gigs for fun.  One legendary night a small horde of local musos decided to form an ad hoc group to open for the Jayhawks.  Before you knew it, half the ‘Hawks were in the band, too, and they were off, playing gigs whenever they felt like it and issuing a sloppy-fun all-covers EP called my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 On Golden Smog, which might have been the end of it if the group hadn’t had such a good time playing together.

Three years later they were back, this time with mostly original songs, for their full-length Rykodisc debut Down By The Old Mainstream, featuring Mars in drums.  Due to various contractual obligations, though, the band were forced to play under pseudonyms.  With typical panache, they chose to use their porn star names (middle name plus street you grew up on).  By their second album, 1998’s Weird Tales, the band was operating more like the real thing, with contracts all sorted out, studio time booked at Ardent in Memphis, and Jody Stephens manning the drum kit.

This new Rhino disc collects the best tracks from those two initial albums of shambolic alt-country-rock wonderfulness, which have more recently been followed by a third full-length (Another Fine Day) and EP (Blood On The Slacks) on Lost Highway Records.   The songs here are the guts of the original Golden Smog vision, shaggy yet effortlessly tuneful romps that are the distinctly individual product of a group of distinctive individuals.

Everyone contributes to songwriting and there isn’t a duff track here, but a list of the highlights would have to include the sweet country-rock sway of Johnson’s “Looking Forward To Seeing You” and Tweedy’s “Lost Love,” the Wilco-influenced Louris-Johnson co-write “Jennifer Save Me,” and of course Louris’ jangly sing-along anthem “Until You Came Along,” featured twice here, in both its Weird Tales incarnation and a 1997 alternate take.  Not as serious but at least as enjoyable are clever goofs like Murphy and Perlman’s smirky “Red-Headed Stepchild” and Johnson’s very funny “He’s A Dick.”

In addition to the new version of “Until You Came Along,” this collection features a previously unreleased cover of Brian Wilson’s “Love And Mercy” with Tweedy on lead vocals.  It’s a pleasant enough if typically understated track, with rich chorused vocals on the bridge and nice jangly guitars.

There’s nothing earth-shattering here, as these guys would likely be the first to tell you.  They weren’t trying to make the Greatest Album Ever, just the albums they would have the most fun making.  So what you get in the end is a bunch of well-crafted songs recorded by a bunch of extremely talented guys who play together for the best reason of all: because they love to.  The fact that they’re willing to let us listen in -- well, it’s kind of a privilege.

Rating: A-

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© 2008 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Rhino, and is used for informational purposes only.