Sunday, May 25, 2014

Side Projects: Golden Smog

Golden Smog: V

For the next couple of weeks, we will be writing about “Side Projects,” the musical projects that are created when an artist decides to moonlight away from his “regular” band. These projects happen for many different reasons—the desire to explore a different kind of music, the opportunity to play with different people, the chance for a sideman to step to the front, or even just to fill time between releases.

Golden Smog appears to have developed because a bunch of friendly, similarly inclined musicians from different bands had fun playing together. As befits their name (which was taken from the second episode of The Flintstones), the origins of Golden Smog are clouded in the mists of history. They started in the late 1980s in Minneapolis as a loose collection of musicians who joined together to play mostly covers, possibly at first in 1987 to support Kraig Johnson, of Run Westy Run, at a solo show. According to Marc Perlman of The Jayhawks, and a member of Golden Smog, that show included guitarists Dan Murphy of Soul Asylum and Gary Louris of The Jayhawks, Perlman on bass and Soul Asylum vocalist Dave Pirner on drums. Other early members included Chris Mars of The Replacements and Jim Boquist of Son Volt, and they became a regular feature of the Minneapolis bar scene. Gary Louris remembers it all somewhat differently, and if you really want more on the band’s origins, read this article from No Depression.

The band’s first release was a 1992 EP of covers, On Golden Smog. Because of contractual issues, the band members used pseudonyms derived from their middle names and the street they grew up on, and included Murphy (“David Spear”), Pirner (“Anthony James”), Louris (“Michael Macklyn”), Perlman (“Raymond Virginia”), Johnson (“Jarrett Decatur”) and Mars (“Eddie Garfield”) who also created the cover art. The relaxed nature of the collaboration was demonstrated by the fact that one song had lead vocals from Soul Asylum roadie Bill Sullivan.

Over time, the members of the band started to bring original songs to the group, and this culminated in 1996’s release, Down By the Old Mainstream, in which Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy (“Scot Summit”) replaced Pirner, and Mars was replaced with Honeydogs’ drummer Noah Levy (“Leonardson Saratoga”). The album contained mostly original songs, with two covers. At the time, Soul Asylum was already a couple of years past their breakthrough hits, The Jayhawks had released a couple of well received albums, but were reeling from the loss of singer Marc Olson, and Wilco was still gaining its footing. Tweedy, who as a Bellville West High School student had actually interviewed Murphy for a music magazine, reportedly appreciated the support he received from his fellow Smoggers following the breakup of Uncle Tupelo and the mixed reviews for Wilco’s debut.

As a fan of Wilco, Soul Asylum and The Jayhawks, I was inclined to like Golden Smog, and this album got me hooked. I especially loved the opener, “V,” featured above, a wistful remembrance of a friendly and supportive barmaid, that, nevertheless rocks. This was a disc that was played to death in our house. I know that some reviews, predictably, denigrated some of the songs as ones that were not good enough for the member’s regular bands, but I think that is too facile a critique. Not every song is a gem, but even the weaker ones are worthwhile.

It took a few years for the band members’ schedules to align to allow the recording and release of a second album, this time with Big Star drummer Jody Stephens instead of Levy. Weird Tales was released in 1998, and consisted of all originals (and all of the members got to use their own names). It has a somewhat more somber tone than the prior disc, but also has a few rockers, including my favorite track, “Until You Came Along.” One review described it as “long and sloppy and uneven and enjoyable, and thus easily pigeonholed as the kind of long, sloppy, uneven, enjoyable record that happens when a bunch of people who kind of know each other sit down with some guitars—yes, we understood, Golden Smog was a Traveling Wilburys full of people nobody really knew.”

My family enjoyed this album, and my wife and I saw the band put on a great show at Irving Plaza in New York. By that time, it was clear that Tweedy was getting most of the attention, as Wilco had released both Being There and the first Mermaid Avenue collaboration with Billy Bragg.

And that seemed to be pretty much it for Golden Smog, as the members’ regular bands and projects took precedence. I was, therefore, excited when the band announced a concert at the Bowery Ballroom in the summer of 2004, and my wife and I went. One of our favorite memories of that night was sitting in this little alcove in the balcony with our friends before the show started, and the actors Adam Goldberg and Christina Ricci, who were a couple at the time, came and sat with us. We became close friends and still hang out. Not really. They actually ignored us and we played the blasé New Yorkers and ignored them, but it was still pretty cool. It was a fun, very loose show, filled with Golden Smog songs and lots of random covers ranging from Carly Simon, to The Fugs to Neil Young to Talking Heads. No Tweedy this time, but the band included Louris, Perlman, Murphy, Johnson, Steve Wynn (of the Dream Syndicate) and his wife, drummer Linda Pitmon, David Poe, Jenni Muldaur, James Mastro (of The Bongos) and others.

The tour led to another album, Another Fine Day, mostly recorded in Spain, with additional material (including Tweedy’s contributions) added later. It is a good album, but I never really fell in love with it, nor did I love the also perfectly fine (but Tweedy-less) EP Blood on the Slacks. I can’t say that my lack of interest in these later discs is a result of their quality or just the fact that I didn’t listen to them over and over again, but it is what it is.

Golden Smog has turned out to be a pretty long-running side project, which allowed its members to have fun, try new things with different band members, but never seemed to get in the way of the members’ “day jobs.” And I think they put out a bunch of good music.

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