Golden Smog
Weird Tales

Lost in the shuffle of last year's best-album lists was this stellar October effort. It's fitting that Weird Tales came out just before Halloween, not just because of the spooky title, but because Golden Smog is something of a Frankenstein's monster, cobbled from pieces of various upper-Midwestern altcountry bands. There's an arm from Run Westy Run (guitarist Kraig Johnson), another from Big Star (drummer Jody Stephens), a leg from Soul Asylum (guitarist Dan Murphy), the torso of the Jayhawks (guitarist Gary Louris and bassist Marc Perlman), and Wilco's head (Jeff Tweedy).

Back in 1989 when Golden Smog was just a loose Minneapolis-area collective assembled for live shows, the group was at the forefront of altcountry, which fused roots-rock and punk to fight off the artifice of the pop and country charts. The release of Uncle Tupelo's No Depression a year later gave the movement a name and a mission. These days, with an EP (1992's On Golden Smog) and an LP (1995's Down by the Old Mainstream) under their belt and altcountry all over the charts, Golden Smog can be revealed for what they are: a supergroup of country-rock conservators and their friends (Soul Asylum frontman Dave Pirner shows up to contribute back-up vocals) who trace their inspiration directly to the great bands of the early Seventies.

Some of the songs here sound like a rougher version of the countrified Byrds ("Reflections on Me"). Some sound like a more decorous version of the countrified Stones (the ingratiating "Looking Forward to Seeing You"). Some sound like the Flying Burrito Brothers ("Making Waves"). And some sound like the Band (the beautiful "Jennifer Save Me," which actually sounds more like the recent Bandlike efforts of Mercury Rev).

The songwriting and lead-singing duties are shared equally among the bandmates -- only Stephens and Perlman demur -- and many songs end up sounding less like group projects than solo efforts brought to session (Louris's "Until You Came Along" features the soaring harmonies of the Jayhawks). With fifteen songs Weird Tales is difficult to digest in a single sitting. Luckily it's recorded, so you can play it over and over again. Which you will.

-- Ben Greenman

When My Blue Moon Turns Red Again
(In the Red)

Although the double-album format will no doubt lead some fanzine pundits to tag this 21-song scorcher as the Bassholes' own Exile on Main Street, please don't get the idea that this mangy punk-blues duo is capable of such greatness. They're not, and they know it. But throughout the band's third longplayer, Don Howland and Bim Thomas twist the blues into something of their own, and with no less passion and raunch and fierce soul than the Stones did back in '72. And in the process, the Bassholes have produced their best album to date: frantic, furious, laced with bitterness, but determined to rock like mad until the demons are driven away.

As both a summary of their brief career (some of singer-songwriter-guitarist Howland's earliest shriekers are revisited) and a nod to the future (the closest the pair have come to something resembling production), When My Blue Moon Turns Red Again revitalizes the postmodernist garage rock Howland helped create in the Eighties with the sloppy and seminal Gibson Brothers. At its best the disc suggests there's still some new terrain to be tilled in the mostly parched soil of junked-up white-boy blues. Howland's singing and writing have finally caught up with his ability to slam out Stooges-steeped snot-rock stompers, just as Thomas's rhythmic pound has gained more muscle and authority over the years.

That's not to say that you can actually hear every single lyric; hell, most of the blasting opener "Microscope Feeling" is unintelligible, at least to my aging, thirtysomething ears. But then so is a lot of Jagger's garbled wailing on Exile. Still, on songs such as "I Saw Beauty" and "She Came on the Bus," you know they mean something even when you can't be exactly certain what that something may be: You don't sound as torn up as Howland does on those songs (or on "For the River," "Evil Eagle," and the sax-squawky "7 Days") without having something dirty eating at your insides. Nor do you flesh out your opus with a cover of something as dark and ugly as Joy Division's "Interzone." But the Bassholes work this postpunk standard into their own emotional, rhythmic din perfectly, which says plenty about what makes Blue Moon a double album worthy of the indulgence.

-- John Floyd

Various artists
The Hi-Lo Country
(TVT Soundtrax)

It seems of late that Willie Nelson's career (one built on the resistance to fad or fashion coupled with the outlaw's willingness to try anything once) has been reduced to a series of gimmicks; namely, covering Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon or letting Daniel Lanois turn him into a croaking echo set to an inexplicable samba beat. And the selling point of this soundtrack, which features marvelous new recordings of old standards by the likes of Don Walser, Marty Stuart, and ex-Playboy Leon Rausch, is yet another oddball Willie-and-special-guest pairing. Only this time around, Nelson shares mike time with Beck, a young man whose fondness for "authenticity" and whose desire to mutate and mutilate genres make him a kindred spirit of sorts.

At first it doesn't even sound like Beck when he launches into a twang-and-twinkle version of "Drivin' Nails in My Coffin," first recorded by Ernest Tubb and produced here by trad-fetishist Marty Stuart. Beck's voice is deep, flat, unadorned -- naked, in other words, so very olden, country. This is the guy who sings "Canceled Check" on Mutations, the ex-folkie with One Foot in the Grave, the guy who travels through "the boggy wasteland of the American spirit" (as he once explained) and emerges each time born again in a different tattered guise.

Like Bob Dylan performing with his idol Johnny Cash on recordings that would surface only on shoddy, secret bootlegs, Beck alters his voice to match Nelson's. He is damn near unrecognizable throughout the song, but when he and Nelson perform the chorus together -- "I'm just drivin' nails in my coffin/Every time I drink a bottle of booze" -- their voices fit together like muscle and skin. Beck fills in the gaps created by Nelson's beautiful nasal twang, adds depth, takes risks. But unlike Dylan, who went to Nashville and burned to cinders in the master's ring of fire, Beck doesn't come off as a lost stranger or interloper. It never feels as though he must stoop down to the material in order to keep pace with it.

Willie is one of Beck's folks, a performer whose every move is dipped in the unholy waters of tradition; nothing either man has ever recorded smacks of irony. Beck and Nelson covering a decades-old country song and making it sound so timelessly tomorrow is what they do best. After all, Beck is a historian as well as a modernist, a 28-year-old who used to perform Skip James covers in punk-rock clubs. And Nelson, well, the man was old-school before the old school was ever built. Tonight the boys burn down the honky-tonk.

-- Robert Wilonsky

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