[11 May 2007]
Golden Smog has been called an alt-country supergroup, but that’s a misnomer. Let’s face it, its members come from bands that, for the most part, have existed in relative obscurity. Guitarist Dan Murphy comes from Soul Asylum, who haven’t so much struggled to make it back onto the charts since their 1993 heyday as they’ve struggled to simply get their name in print. Gary Louris and Marc Perlman come from the Jayhawks, who have become gradually more unknown since they were only a little less unknown back when Mark Olson was in their Tomorrow the Green Grass lineup. Then there’s Kraig Johnson, a veteran of Run Westy Run, a band that hasn’t released an album in nearly two decades, and that relatively few ever knew of anyways. Only Jeff Tweedy is a bona fide icon, and it’s little wonder his involvement with the band is increasingly scant. In fact, Mr. Heir-to-Guthrie/Dylan/Springsteen is absent from Golden Smog’s latest release, but musical pontiffs are busy, right?
But this is what makes Golden Smog such a great idea: more than the perpetually-cursed supergroup, the band is a musical rest stop, a place where wandering musicians can stop, relax, and rejuvenate, away from the pressures of their main projects. Nobody expects them to sell many records, and they live up (down?) to those expectations, focusing on having fun and creating the occasional pop gem instead. In keeping with this relaxed structure, each release from the band has featured a slightly different lineup, composed of a rotating cast of musicians who were free at the moment. Through the years, the Smog has featured no fewer than 14 members, some of them from such iconic bands as the Replacements and Big Star.
It’s little surprise, then, that the band has released relatively few albums through their nearly two-decade tenure. It’s not like the group is anyone’s first priority—until now, it seems. Though Golden Smog released only four albums in its first 17 years of existence, Blood on the Slacks, its latest release, comes out only 10 months after 2006’s Another Fine Day. By Golden Smog standards, this is rather remarkable. You might even label this sudden onslaught of new material a flurry of activity.
Before you resort to using worn-out clichés, however, it would be pertinent to note that Blood on the Slacks is a little more than an EP, but not quite an LP. Composed of eight songs, it’s what the record label is terming a “mini-album,” which means the band couldn’t find the inspiration or motivation to write two more tunes required to make an album proper. If that’s not disappointing enough, consider this: this “mini-album” contains two leftovers from Another Fine Day and two covers, one of David Bowie’s “Starman” and another of Dinosaur Jr.‘s “Tarpit”. Yes, when you do the math, the Smog only wrote four new songs for this release, which, by anyone’s definition, is hardly a flurry of activity. Oh well, it’s best to avoid those clichés anyways.
If, however, you purchase Blood on the Slacks expecting little in the way of new material, you will be surprised. The new tracks are diverse in style and theme, ranging from the old-school rock n’ roll romp of “Can’t Even Tie Your Own Shoes” to the quirky bossa nova of the instrumental “Magician”. Then there’s “Scotch on Ice”, a soft love ballad that will find its way onto many compilations made by guys trying to impress the womenfolk with their musical knowledge and mature sensitivity. And it should find its way onto compilations; not only is the song criminally infectious (one of those songs you hope for when purchasing an album you’ve never heard), it also shows the band’s broad range, blending classic folk balladry with sixties pop hooks. To listen to it once is to agree to listen to it for the next week.
Even the covers are impressive, particularly Bowie’s “Starman”. Gary Louris does a spot-on Thin White Duke, from the ghostly drawn-out vowels to the eerily seductive moans. Thankfully, this version is faithful to the original, and Louris and company realize that to “update” Bowie is to ruin him, for there’s no improving perfection. “Tarpit”, conversely, is an entirely different version than the original, this one soft and acoustic rather than frayed and electric. Since it’s more of an entirely different interpretation than an update, however, it works. The lyrics are more pronounced, and the song has an altogether different mood.
Indeed, Blood on the Slacks is actually, in many ways, better than its full-length predecessor. Sure, there’s not much here. Eight tracks that contain two leftovers and two covers hardly constitute an album, and with fewer than 25 minutes of music, this is hardly a musical event—the kind “supergroups” are supposed to kindly bestow upon the world. And yet, despite reeking of a half-assed, slapdash effort, Blood on the Slacks is damn nice. Everything here sounds spontaneous and fresh, like four old buddies just paying homage to their idols and drawing from the inspiration of those influences to make some sturdy damn tunes. Yes, this album is rather slight, but it ain’t bad for a side project. If anything, it’s a compelling argument that Golden Smog should be a higher priority for its members.