GOLDEN SMOG On Golden Smog (Rykodisc)

Golden Smog are the Travelling Wilbury-esque side project formed by Jeff Tweedy of alt-country bands Uncle Tupelo and Wilco, former Big Star drummer Jody Stephenson and members of Run Westy Run, The Jayhawks and Soul Asylum. "On Golden Smog" is their ‘legendary rare and highly coveted debut EP’ (so says the hype on the cover), featuring five covers from such diverse sources as Thin Lizzy, The Rolling Stones, Bad Company, Three Dog Night and Michaelangelo, whoever they may be.

And it’s terrific: pure-bred country rock of the like unseen maybe since early Flying Burritos, it neatly side-steps the obsessions of the so-called "No Depression" movement by drawing unapolagetically on a rich vein of (other people’s) songwriting, and in doing so makes for an even more entertaining listen that either of Golden Smog’s proper albums. Best bits for me are their take on the Mick ‘n’ Keef obscurity (sidelined due to its presence on the British version of "Between The Buttons" but not the American one, from which the CD issue has been taken) "Backstreet Girl", a classic slice of mid-60s Stones nastiness, and Thin Lizzy’s "Cowboy Song" - if the Smog’s version doesn’t send you scurrying after the original whilst muttering about how ridiculously underrated Thin Lizzy seem to have been by rock history you’ve probably subscribed to the wrong newsletter.

"On Golden Smog" is twenty minutes of country-rock genius: if you like any of the bands that provide its constituents with day jobs you’ll probably love this as much as I do.

GOLDEN SMOG Weird Tales (Rykodisc)

Golden Smog are a country-rock supergroup who, for their debut album "Down On The Old Mainstream", were forced to adopt Travelling Wilbury-style pseudonyms for legal reasons. Happily, the follow-up "Weird Tales" reveals their true identities to be Kraig Johnson (Run Westy Run), Gary Louris and Marc Perlman (both of The Jayhawks), Dan Murphy (Soul Asylum, Jody Stephens (Big Star) and Jeff Tweedy (Wilco), the presence of the latter two being a serious inducement for me to purchase. Even better than that, the footsoldiers in the service of the furtherance of fine music at Rykodisc have cleverly bundled "Down By The Old Mainstream" into a slipcase with "Weird Tales" and even Our Price didn’t have the heart to charge more than 15 for the whole kit caboodle.

Rykodisc’s marketing ruse is great for the customer but unfortunately reveals the odd flaw in Golden Smog’s musical development because, to be honest, fine as "Weird Tales" is it’s not a patch on "Down By The Old Mainstream", which wins through by virtue of better tunes and an almost complete absence of the slight rockist tendencies and big guitars that make the later album sound a bit, well, ordinary in places.

"But hang on", you’re probably not thinking, "Golden Smog play country rock, which is hardly the most experimental, forward-thinking genre on the planet, is it?" Well, no, but on their debut they infuse it with sufficient sly humour and kick-ass rock ‘n’ roll that they can (and do) play an almost note-for-note reconstruction of The Faces’ "Glad & Sorry" whilst still making it sound entirely their own. Elsewhere there’s the throat-strippping rumbustiousness of "Red Headed Stepchild" and "V", the rib-tickling "He’s A Dick" and "Pecan Pie" and the obligatory Jeff Tweedy fan’s-eye musing on the nature of celebrity, "Radio King".

On its own terms "Weird Tales" is still a very good work: you can’t complain about any song as laden with a singalong chorus as "Until You Came Along", or the acoustic nice/nastiness of "Please Tell My Brothers", which sounds unnervingly like an outtake from the album of Billy Bragg/Wilco/Woody Guthrie collaborations reviewed above. It earns extra points too for the presence of Big Star producer Jim Dickinson on one track (the man who helped shape "Third/Sister Lovers" into the apocalyptic vision it became) and for being recorded at the same studio as all three Big Star albums (Ardent in Memphis). It’s just that, following the delights of "Down By The Old Mainstream", it’s a wee bit dissapointing. But then again, since, for the moment at least, you can’t buy one without the other everybody wins.

Big Star

Billy Bragg & Wilco

Jeff Tweedy

Uncle Tupelo