[30 October 2008]
Perhaps one of rock music’s most low-key supergroups, Golden Smog has been puttering around in various incarnations since the late ‘80s, when members of several prominent Minneapolis bands got together for shaggy, cover-filled shows. In 1992, the On Golden Smog EP dropped, featuring songs by the Rolling Stones, Thin Lizzy, and Bad Company. It was an obviously and decidedly loose concept both in terms of lineup and execution. Golden Smog also provided its members (the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris, Soul Asylum’s Dan Murphy, and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, among others) with the opportunity to write and perform outside of their more earnest and professional main projects, and just have what sounds on record like a hell of a lot of fun. The band’s first full-length, 1996’s Down By the Old Mainstream, featured fake names and songs about pie and freeloading assholes amidst material occasionally as memorable and beloved as that of its parent bands.
So I’ve got to admit that I’m a bit baffled as to why this greatest hits disc even exists, not because there it doesn’t contain good, sometimes great music, but because it draws exclusively from only two previous albums. As both—Mainstream and 1998’s Weird Tales—are still in print, it seems strange just to stitch half of each of them together and call it a new release. There’s nothing from the initial EP, or anything from the two most recent Golden Smog efforts (though only the EP was also put out by Stay Golden’s label, Rykodisc, so, you know, business). With next to no value for anyone who owns either of those records, and a dubious option for those who don’t, Stay Golden, Smog is a strange beast indeed.
Still, it’s remarkable how cohesive and fresh those two records sound, as cobbled together by this collection. Not a single track sounds dated, their bar- and country-rock camaraderie shining through throughout. Stay Golden, Smog is also (for better or worse) as democratic in its track listing as the original albums. It would be easy to sneak a greatest hits disc heavy on Louris and Tweedy-led cuts to the marketplace, as they were responsible for the strongest material. But the shaky, more ramshackle offerings are as responsible for the project’s vibe as the Louris/Tweedy duet on the Faces’ “Glad and Sorry”, or Dan Murphy’s rousing “To Call My Own”. The only real bum track is Kraig Johnson’s “Making Waves”, a lilting, violin-laced song about a drug overdose marred by an unfortunate chorus that begins, “Making waves in the bathroom”, which, when combined with the call and response of “Are you in there, hello hello hello? / I’ll be out in a while” ends up sounding more like a mean number two than a life-or-death situation.
Of the two bonus tracks included on Stay Golden, only the Tweedy-sung cover of Brian Wilson’s “Love and Mercy” is truly new, as the other is just a demo version of Louris’s fine “Until You Came Along”. Other than that, the disc is just a mix tape one could have made themselves, or made differently. It’s hard to argue with the spacey, fall-apart “Jennifer Save Me”, the twangy “Looking Forward to Seeing You”, or the Louris/Olson-penned “Won’t Be Coming Home”. But how about “All the Same to Me”, Tweedy’s writing collaborations with Rennie Sparks of the Handsome Family, or the slouchy, down-tempo country cover of “She Don’t Have to See You”? Choices, choices. Nearly everything here was and remains an unqualified success rather than a better band’s castaway, but the whole enterprise still begs the clichéd question asked of all greatest hits compilations: why have a few when you could (in this case easily) have them all?