What do you get when you bring together members of Wilco, Soul Asylum, and The Jayhawks and throw them into a remote recording studio in Minnesota wilderness? Well, as the Run Out Groove label proved with its LP reissue earlier this year, the result is one mighty down-home, fun album of country-rock grooves: Down By the Old Mainstream by ’90s supergroup Golden Smog.
While their lineup has been mercurial since they first got together in the late-’80s, the core lineup included Kraig Johnson of Run Westy Run, Dan Murphy of Soul Asylum, and Marc Perlman and Gary Louris of The Jayhawks. Their debut EP, On Golden Smog, arrived on Crackpot Records in 1992. Their loose, refreshing country-rock stood in contrast to the grunge and punk scenes of the time, and by 1995, Jeff Tweedy from Wilco and drummer Noah Levy of The Honeydogs had joined. But you won’t find any of those names on the record sleeve — all the musicians used pseudonyms due to contractual limitations.
Behind their new identities, Golden Smog they released their first long-player for Rykodisc, Down By the Old Mainstream. The 14-track CD arrived on Rykodisc and garnered favorable reviews, as well as a lasting cult following among alt-country enthusiasts. Now, Golden Smog fans and newcomers can enjoy the music in a brand-new, 2-LP colored vinyl presentation.
The album of thirteen original songs and two covers is a bit of a contradiction. The songs are at once relaxed and full of rootsy charm, yet impassioned and dynamic. The music harkens back to the ’70s country-rock of The Rolling Stones, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Faces.
In fact, one of the songs Golden Smog chose to cover was Faces’ “Glad and Sorry.” While the original was rather sparse, propelled mainly by acoustic guitar and piano, Golden Smog takes a more (layered) approach with several electric guitars harmonizing together over the course of the song. It fits well with the other tracks on the album, including “Ill Fated,” a Byrds-like rock number full of jangly guitars, crunchy leads, and relaxed, two-part harmony vocals.
Meanwhile, on the opener “V,” Gary Louris and Kraig Johnson show off their power-pop prowess. The infectious character study follows a girl who “would wait on us down at the bar” but disappeared “as if in a dream,” all to an R.E.M.-esque backdrop of electric guitars and mandolin.
But it’s on “Pecan Pie” – an endearing love song to a either a person or a dessert – that Golden Smog are their most down-home. The mandolin and guitar parts mingle as Jeff Tweedy (as “Scot Summit”) sings about stumbling and grumbling, only to have his mind cleared by his conclusion: Life is simple – “A piece of pecan pie and you, that’s all I want.”
On “Yesterday Cried,” Golden Smog creates a more atmospheric environment for the relaxed and melancholic ballad. With its two-part harmonies, shimmering slide guitar accompaniment, and strings sounds sampled on the Chamberlin, the wide-open track evokes a ’70s production style that complements the emotive vocal by Kraig Johnson.
Another highlight of Down By the Old Mainstream is “Friend.” While other tracks on the album retain a straight-ahead, simplistic quality, “Friend” is closer to a small suite with its ternary structure. It begins in laid-back groove featuring blended guitar parts and three-part harmonies. Following the second chorus, the band abruptly switches into a higher gear: jangling rock with driving drums that glides back into the original groove after a brief but incendiary slide solo.
No matter the song, the talent of each multi-instrumentalist in Golden Smog is evident and sweet as pecan pie. The album remains a loose, informal affair, though the production is often detailed and multi-layered, as demonstrated by Run Out Groove’s new pressing.
While Ryko Analog issued LP versions of Down the Old Mainstream in 2010, Run Out Groove’s recent version offers a much more compelling presentation: Stoughton-printed, tip-on gatefold sleeve, poly-lined inner sleeves, new disc labels, and pecan pie-inspired brown, black, and red marbled vinyl. The music has been mastered from the original source and pressed to 180-gram heavyweight vinyl at Record Industry. The result is an all-around enjoyable listening experience.
Boasting great music, enhanced visual components, and a quality pressing, Run Out Groove brings Down By the Old Mainstream to vinyl for the first time in nearly a decade. Due to its limited nature, the title is no longer available on the label’s web store, but copies may be found in participating brick and mortar shops. You can find a list of Run Out Groove retailers here, including: