Should we start with the music, or the incredibly annoying yet pressing music geek issue that almost spoils Stay Golden, Smog: The Best of Golden Smog?
Let's start with the music.
Born out of the Minneapolis music scene in the late eighties, Golden Smog is essentially an alternative/country supergroup, featuring at various times members of Wilco, the Jayhawks, the Replacements, Soul Asylum, and Big Star. Which gives it a substanstial and immediate heft, not just from a performance standpoint, but from a songwriting perspective as well. While Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy's contributions to this Golden Smog "best of" are occasionally clunky (unless you've been searching your whole life for the perfect song about pecan pie), the tunes by the Jayhawks' Gary Louris and Soul Asylum's Dan Murphy are absolute standouts.
So that's where it starts: great songwriting, well performed. What's interesting is that the alchemy that makes Golden Smog work exists independent of the sound and relationships that make up each members' other bands. A Golden Smog track is not a Wilco track or a Jayhawks track or a Soul Asylum track with different players, even if it's written by a member of one of those bands.
Golden Smog builds its own sound out of a heady mix of country, rock, and pop. There's hooks and riffs aplenty, but lathered in a healthy dose of twang. If the Eagles weren't shitty, this is the kind of music they would make.
That's the music. It's good stuff.
Now the nitpicking begins: This "best of" release is actually just the band's two albums for Rykodisc chopped in half, scrambled, and jammed together. Eight songs from their debut, Down By the Old Mainstream, along with eight songs from their second record, Weird Tales, and two "bonus" tracks, an early demo of "Until You Came Along," and a standout cover of Brian Wilson's "Love and Mercy."
For about $24, you can get both records from Amazon; for about $16, you can get the "best of." Sure, that's an eight buck difference, and you lose the "bonus" tracks…but instead you have two complete albums from a woefully underrated, almost-always-excellent country rock combo, both of which deserve a place in your record collection. Best of all, for two more bucks, you've got DRM-free MP3s of the bonus material too, so you don't miss a thing.
Music geeks will recognize this type of release from fifty paces. It reeks of a "contract filler," that one last release on a label to wrap up all the contractually obligated releases from a band. These are often "best of" compilations of existing material with a few rarities tossed on to encourage die-hard fans to buy them, or they're live albums.
I'm not sure how else to describe Stay Golden, Smog. With more bonus material, it could have become an essential release. Heck, to the best of my knowledge, Golden Smog's true debut, a covers EP, could use a decent polish and a fresh release. Why not tack those tracks onto the end of this disc, maybe trim out some of the album cuts, and make it a more essential buy for current Golden Smog fans and new fans alike?
It's hard to recommend Stay Golden, Smog, because those first two albums are so good. If you have the means, they're the way to go. But it's easy to recommend Golden Smog period, however you choose to buy their stuff. If you like straight-ahead country rock served up with whiskey-soaked regret and sweet melodies, then Golden Smog is your new favorite band.
Don't believe me? Stream some highlights and hear Golden Smog's greatness for yourself.