Which is a more memorable take on alienation: an electronic drone or a song about driving around at night listening to the radio? On its first full-length album, 1996’s Down by the Old Mainstream, the alt-country supergroup Golden Smog chronicles the simple pleasures of cruising to a song you only vaguely recognize: “Your music fills my car/And your voice breaks every time,” Jeff Tweedy sings on “Radio King.” “I’m still wondering if I know who you are/I hang on every line.”
It’s a not-too-serious moment that perfectly captures the disconnect from the world afforded you by a 2,000-pound metal box on wheels, and on Another Fine Day’s “Corvette,” Golden Smog further refines the argument. With its bubbly beat, Rick Springfield–style opening riff, and Raspberries-inspired chorus that swears that “the dream is never over,” “Corvette” initially reads as a hot-fun-in-the-summertime party song—’til you realize the narrator is cruising through a postmodern wasteland, meditating on loss. “Part of you here, part of you everywhere,” Soul Asylumer Dan Murphy sings. “Looking around, all that I see/Buildings and cars, modern technology.”
It’s an appropriate sentiment for a band that involves Wilco’s Tweedy, a song commissioned for (but not used in) a car commercial, and a supergroup that, with its first record in eight years, is hardly much of a time commitment for anyone involved. Besides Wilco, Golden Smog has been an outlet for members of bands such as the Jayhawks, the Honeydogs, Big Star, and the Replacements to record material that probably wouldn’t pass muster with the members’ “serious” projects.
But songs such as Day’s “Beautiful Mind” are pretty serious themselves. “Mind” is a hard-charging tune fueled by guitar, piano, and bells—but only eventually. The track gets its angst on early, opening with about a minute and a half of ambient noise, and when the bones of the song finally emerge (via guitar strumming), what comes through is a little grimmer than standard Golden Smog: “I saw my picture in the paper/It read guilty/Eleven strong, consider him dead,” Kraig Jarret Johnson sings.
It’s tempting to attribute this dark mood to the presence of Tweedy, who certainly seems a likely suspect for Another Fine Day’s jarring, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot–style sonic touches. Thing is, Tweedy plays on only about half of Day’s 15 tracks. Still, the shadows of Foxtrot are apparent: Disc-opener “You Make It Easy,” for example, chugs along gamely enough thanks to throbbing, descending piano notes, but come the third minute, a weird breakdown, complete with beeps and feedback, feels gratuitous. And the first 10 seconds or so of the 12th track, “Gone,” sound kinda like an amplified vacuum cleaner.
Though previous Smog albums have hardly shied away from darker subject matter, Another Fine Day just seems to cut a little deeper. Jayhawk Gary Louris joins Tweedy for “Listen Joe,” a brooding look at death—“Drew up my plans/Made some mistakes/Packed up my bags/Felt no embrace/Never found a reason I should stay”—that sports a gorgeous pentatonic melody and a chorus that intones, “surprise surprise, everyone dies.” The closing track, “Think About Yourself,” includes the lines “Every night you close your eyes your head is filled with alibis, and who’s to blame/Everywhere I turn, I see the bridges that you burn just to be free again.”
Still, some of the Smog’s old throwaway spirit lives on. “Long Time Ago” is a touching Tweedy/Louris–penned acoustic-guitar-based ballad, and it would be difficult to imagine today’s Wilco (or yesterday’s Jayhawks) allowing whimsical lyrics such as “I remember when Mom and Dad named you Claire/Before you were born/before you had hair.” Golden Smog is in its element when the sonic hiccups take five and its members can get simple and slaphappy. On Jayhawk Marc Perlman’s “Cure for This,” co-producer Paco Loco’s wife Muni Camon sings, “So full of innocence/So full of joyfulness/In a world that’s so unkind” against a sweet soundscape that takes the radical approach of—instead of meandering pauses filled with Omnichord and synthesizer blurbles—simply using the instruments subtly. It’s followed by Murphy’s “Hurricane,” which is propelled by a choppy, thrashing hook that suggests, well, gathering winds.
The experimentation doesn’t always grate—by the end of “Beautiful Mind,” sirenlike sounds emerge that actually fit in well with the song’s frosty mood—but the band’s wider scope results in an album that’s scattershot even by supergroup standards. If you’re gonna write songs about cars, it’s probably best not to spend too much time under the hood.
Quick: How do you get a drummer off your porch? Pay him for the pizza. What did the drummer get on his IQ test? Drool. Yep, when it comes to musical jokes, drummers have traditionally had it the worst. But longtime Jayhawks skinsman Tim O’Reagan has never been content to stay behind the kit: He plays guitar, bass, and harmonica, too, and since joining the Jayhawks in the mid ’90s, he’s contributed muted self-pity number “Bottomless Cup” to 1997’s Sound of Lies, co-written several songs on 2000’s Smile, and contributed two solid tracks to 2003’s Rainy Day Music—the slice-of-life bus-trip ballad “Tampa to Tulsa” and the anxiously chorded “Don’t Let the World Get in Your Way.”
O’Reagan’s solo debut opens with 30 seconds of slow accordion that suggest Gallic reverie more than Midwestern-dive revelry. But the ballad’s subject—self-medication—would fit just fine into the sadsack Americana tradition that alt-country’s made safe for the NPR demo: “Whiskey good, too/Pills, just a few,” he sings. “These things will do/Till I find you.” At four-and-a-half minutes, it’s the longest track, and O’Reagan keeps things laid-back and lazy via slow, fuzzed-out guitars and casual whistling (courtesy of his father).
From there, O’Reagan pretty much hews to sunny tracks rooted in alt-fundamentals, with lyrics equally bucolic and borderline suicidal. “The sun is high, high, high/The sky is blue/And I’ll be inside till my breakdown’s through,” he sings on “That’s the Game,” as a jaunty triple beat gambols with harmonica. On “Black & Blue,” a gently descending guitar figure echoes the song’s recovery theme: “No more dying sounds are coming out of me,” O’Reagan sings.
Tim O’Reagan even conjures up a few moments of modest experimentation of its own. He bumps his voice up an octave or two, to mysterious, ethereal effect on “Ivy.” And one of the slower tracks, “Anybody’s Only,” skips the traditional verse-chorus-verse structure, ending instead by constructing a bridge out of a decent, B-grade simile (“Your love is like a radio,” he sings, “no reception when the clouds are low. I’m trying to give you a signal, but I just can’t get through”) and repeating “to you/to you/to you” as the song winds down.
O’Reagan’s growly croon is a little problematic on “Just Like You,” which, abetted in no small part by some garage-ready guitars, sounds a little like a standard Dylan imitation (with a guitar solo toward the end that references the Byrds for good measure). But O’Reagan’s solid songwriting and willingness to play with sound help his album avoid alt-country cliché, no small feat since the liner notes read like a back issue of No Depression: appearances by another former Jayhawk, Mark Olson, Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dipper Mike “Razz” Russell, and half of the once–of–Son Volt Boquist brothers. It calls to mind another old drummer joke, the one whose setup is “What do you call a guy who hangs around with musicians?” Tim O’Reagan should keep the punch line at bay for a while.CP