As I continue to revisit albums that are gathering dust in my music collection, we come to the “O” section of the shelf: all of four CDs wide. Oddly enough, two of them are side projects — recorded while members were on vacation from much more famous groups. Still more oddly, both are connected to my favorite band, but neither involves the leader of Wilco. (And one of the other two is an album by that other group that emerged from the wreckage of Uncle Tupelo…)
There’s Once Around, the fourth album by The Autumn Defense, a longstanding side project of Wilco’s John Stirratt and Pat Sansone that (unlike at least one previous effort) doesn’t have any songwriting or performance credits for Jeff Tweedy. It’s pleasant, well-produced, and purchased more out of loyalty than interest. (And there’s a clause to warm the cold, cold heart of a recording industry executive!)
Then there’s the real oddity, a five-song EP (originally released by a tiny label that soon went under) serving as the debut recording of Golden Smog, an ever-shifting collective that added Tweedy two years later, but in 1992 was composed solely of musicians who call these here Twin Cities home.
Golden Smog, On Golden Smog
I’ve said a bit about the Tweedy era in this group’s history in an earlier post on The Jayhawks, the great Minneapolis band that contributed Gary Louris and Marc Perlman to the Smog. When their EP came out in 1992 the team also included Dan Murphy and (from time to time) Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum (On Golden Smog was released that December, just a couple months after Grave Dancers Union; just over a month later, Dave, Dan, and the boys played the Clinton inaugural, proving beyond all doubt that life is strange), Kraig Johnson of Run Westy Run, and drummer Chris Mars, two years removed from quitting The Replacements. (His solo debut had come out earlier in 1992, with some assistance from Murphy and Pirner.) Mars’ cover art nods at the day jobs — a marquee announces “Tonight: Resoul Hawkrun” — but in the liner notes each of the Smog-men hid under the oddly British-sounding combination of his middle name and the street he grew up on. Murphy = “David Spear-Way”; Johnson = “Jarett Decatur-Laine”; etc.
As you might expect from someone who has called himself “The Dabbler” (on a blog that strays often from its stated themes into, oh, music criticism) and struggles to say no to new opportunities at work, church, and beyond, I’m a big fan of the concept of the side project. I’d opine that it’s a reaffirmation of following one’s vocation wherever it takes you, and a rebuke to professionalization. (“The loss of excitement,” wrote Simon Callow in his biography of Orson Welles, “is the beginning of professionalism.”)
But that’s far too stuffy a claim to impose on this particular side project, which was more about friends coming up with “a way of blowing off steam, a vacation from their regular, higher-profile bands” (Greg Kot, Wilco: Learning How to Die, p. 106).
That, and drinking beer.
And revisiting adolescence, by running through Seventies AM radio staples like Bad Company’s “Shooting Star” (Pirner), Three Dog Night’s “Easy To Be Hard” (Louris), and Thin Lizzy’s “Cowboy Song” (Soul Asylum tour manager Bill Sullivan, who later bought Minneapolis’ 400 Bar, where the Golden Smog had first played together ca. 1987). The EP is rounded out by faithful covers of The Rolling Stones’ “Backstreet Girl” (Johnson) and the 1971 Michaelangelo nugget “Son (We’ve Kept the Room Just the Way You Left It)” (Murphy).
It was a typical mix for the Golden Smog at that point. A gig at First Avenue earlier in 1992 also featured songs by Grand Funk Railroad (“American Band”), Carly Simon (“You’re So Vain”), Neil Young (“Revolution Blues”), Derek and the Dominoes (“Bell Bottom Blues”), and Kris Kristofferson (“Help Me Make It Through the Night”). Louris even opened the set by covering Karen Carpenter (“Superstar”) and then took on “Handbags and Gladrags” (made famous by Rod Stewart and later to become the theme song for the British version of The Office).
At one point in the recording of that January 1992 concert (available on YouTube, but audio-only), over the applause for a fiery take on CSNY’s “Almost Cut My Hair,” someone in the crowd can be heard observing, “There’s a reason why none of these are the lead singers of their bands. [sic, sorta – Pirner, obviously, and Louris was co-fronting The Jayhawks by that point; but it was either Johnson or Murphy playing the role of David Crosby here] But when they shut up and jam, they’re great!” Anyway, the ramshackle quality of this particular side project is beside the point. As one Amazon reviewer of put it, “[On Golden Smog] is not particularly good for any reason apart from sounding happy.”
I can’t find any video of Golden Smog performances from 1992. The earliest available on YouTube seems to be this set from 1994, not long after Tweedy joined up. In addition to his contributions to the Smog’s first full album, he takes a lead on Doug Sahm’s “Who Were You Thinking Of?”
Release Date: 1992
Three Favorite Tracks: “Shooting Star”; “Cowboy Song”; “Easy To Be Hard”
Other Nominees: The Autumn Defense, Once Around; REM, Out of Time; Son Volt, Okemah and the Melody of Riot.