AmericanA to Z: Golden Smog

Golden Smog is a loose and occasional association of musicians centring around various members of The Jayhawks, Wilco and Soul Asylum. On occasion they have also been joined by members of The Replacements, Big Star and The Honeydogs. The only members to play on all their recordings are guitarist Kraig Johnson from the lesser-known Run Westy Run, Gary Louris and Marc Perlman from The Jayhawks and Soul Asylum’s Dan Murphy. To all intents and purposes, they are what we might have referred to in the past as a ‘supergroup’. But we would not use such crude terminology today, would we?

In 1992 Golden Smog released ‘On Golden Smog’ a 5 track EP of covers of songs ranging from Bad Company to the ‘Hair’ musical. A cover of Thin Lizzy’s ‘The Cowboy Song’ sung by Soul Asylum’s roadie, underlined the fun aspect of the project. They also had a bit of fun with their names. For contractual reasons they couldn’t be credited under their real names, so they all appeared under pseudonyms put together by combining their middle names with the street that they grew up in. Hence Gary Louris became Michael Macklyn-Drive and Dan Murphy was David Spear-Way…you get the idea. The names, in shortened form (i.e Michael Macklyn) were retained for their next release.

Three years after the ‘On Golden Smog’ EP the band/collective/association, call it what you will, released their first full-length album ‘Down by the Old Mainstream’. Joining them this time was Jeff Tweedy (Scot Summit). This time the album consisted largely of original material with only two covers amongst its 14 tracks. Songwriting credits were shared around with almost every member chipping in. The album was patchy in truth and reviewers at the time gave it a largely lukewarm reception. With time and context, the album has grown and matured rendering some of those contemporary reviews somewhat too dismissive.

The album has many highlights, most of them provided by Gary Louris. The Louris/Johnson composition ‘V’ wouldn’t sound out of place on any post-Olson Jayhawks album, whilst ‘Won’t Be Coming Home’  would equally sit comfortably on any of the early Louris/Olson Jayhawks albums, having been co-written by the pair. Louris’s cover of Ronnie Lane’s ‘Glad & Sorry’ is a further highlight. Unfortunately the two Jeff Tweedy compositions ‘Pecan Pie’ and ‘Walk Where He Walked’ will not go down as amongst his finest moments, but he does redeem himself somewhat with an excellent vocal rendition of the Bobby Patterson song ‘She Don’t Have to See You’ and his co-write with Louris ‘Radio King’

Contractual issues presumably by then settled; each band member reverted to their real names for 1998’s ‘Weird Tales’, which many regard as their foremost achievement. It is far more consistent and certainly has more of a regular band feel to it, as opposed to the raggle-taggle approach of their debut. Eleven of the fifteen tracks were written or co-written by Gary Louris or Jeff Tweedy which means there is less makeweight material than on their debut. Where other members are given an opportunity, they largely rise to it this time around. Dan Murphy’s opening track ‘To Call My Own’ and ‘Reflections on Me’ are both strong songs whilst Kraig Johnson’s ‘Looking Forward to Seeing You’ and ‘Making Waves’ allow him to stand up and look his band mates in the eye without blinking.

Unsurprisingly though it is the Louris and Tweedy material that provide the albums best moments. Whereas Tweedy failed to ignite on ‘Down By the Old Mainstream’ on its follow-up he gives Louris more of a run for his money providing perhaps the outstanding track in ‘Lost Love’ and nothing below par. Louris provides the most songs, all of which carry his trademark seal of quality with ‘Until You Came Along’ being perhaps the pick of them. Tweedy and Louris collaborate on just one track ‘Fear of Falling’ which while very acceptable, perhaps doesn’t quite live up to the high expectations that such a joint venture might raise.

It would be another eight years before the third Golden Smog album ‘Another Fine Day’ appeared in 2006. During that time both the Jayhawks and Soul Asylum had gone into hiatus while Wilco had achieved critical and commercial success. The album more than ever before, was the work of Gary Louris who had a hand in 11 of the album’s 15 songs. With Wilco in great demand, Tweedy contributed to only four songs, all of them co-writes, and provided lead vocal on only three.

The album marked a distinct shift in sound from the loose country-rock of the first two albums. ‘Another Fine Day’ had a more straight-up rock sound and a slicker production. For many it lacked the frivolous fun of the previous albums, others argued that it represented a progression and an acknowledgement that they had all moved on musically. What is certain is that it remains the most divisive of Golden Smog’s four albums. The Louris/Tweedy composition ‘Listen Joe’ provided something of a bridge to the earlier work and demonstrated that the two could write comfortably together after all. However, it was not representative of the album’s overall sound. Although a bit of surprise on first listen ‘Another Fine Day’ is another that sounds better with the passage of time.

Less than twelve months later the fourth Golden Smog album was released. 2007’s ‘Blood on the Slacks’ with just eight tracks and a running time of under 25 minutes might more accurately be described as a mini-album. It was also the first Golden Smog album not to feature Jeff Tweedy. On the face of it the album does not promise a great deal. Of the eight tracks, two were deemed surplus to requirements for ‘Another Fine Day’, two more were covers, leaving just four new compositions and one of those was an instrumental! Yet, the album is curiously more satisfying than the full album of 10 months previous. ‘Without a Struggle’ is as good as anything that Gary Louris produced for Golden Smog and that’s a high bar to be hitting. The album is diverse and full of surprises. Opening up with the high- tempo rock of ‘Can’t Even Tie Your Own Shoes’, the album goes into a fairly faithful version of Bowie’s ‘Starman’. This contrasts with their treatment of Dinosaur Jr.’s ‘Tarpit’ which is transformed into a gentle acoustic song that highlights the strength of J, Mascic’s lyrics. ‘Look at You Now’ is another strong Louris song and his involvement in ‘Scotch on the Rocks’ elevates the quality of the co-write with Johnson and Murphy. The return to the relaxed feel of the early works provides a fresh antidote to ‘Another Fine Day’.

Whether there will be any further offerings remains unknown. It is now twelve years since their last release. A one-off birthday gig for Dan Murphy in 2019 offered up hope as did plans for a further performance in April of this year that was cancelled because of Covid-19. If nothing materialises they have at least left a legacy of always fascinating works, some of it quite exceptional.

Author: Clint West

From buying my first record aged 10 and attending my first gig at 14, music has been a lifelong obsession. A proud native of Suffolk, I have lived in and around Manchester for the best part of 30 years. My idea of a perfect day would be a new record arriving in the post in the morning, watching Ipswich Town win in the afternoon followed by a gig and a pint with my mates at night,

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