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Golden Smog--a Break in the Country Haze

Pop music: Dan Murphy's soul finds asylum in the occasional ensemble, whose postmodern sound will hit the Coach House.

June 26, 1996|SARA SCRIBNER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Dan Murphy, guitarist for the rock band Soul Asylum, is as unaccustomed to playing love songs about pecan pie and Waffle House waitresses as he is to going unplugged. The normally high-voltage rocker is learning, though.

"I'm discovering that I don't have to play loud to get my point across," Murphy says. "I don't have to bring a lot of amps to tour. I can pick up a mandolin every now and then, and that works."

No, Soul Asylum is not going bluegrass. Murphy is talking about his side project, Golden Smog, an occasional ensemble that rides a Flying Burrito Brothers-style current of spiky, good-natured postmodern country with mandolin accents, addictive acoustic guitar and harmonica hoots.

The sound is a pure product of the Minneapolis bar scene, where such country mavens as Wilco and the Jayhawks mingle with rockers such as Soul Asylum.

But Golden Smog captures the city's burgeoning neo-country craze more than its post-punk side. And it's no great surprise that Golden Smog captures it so well: members of Wilco and the Jayhawks--two groups that have spurred the country-rock revival--are in this low-key supergroup, which plays the Troubadour in West Hollywood on Friday and the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano on Saturday.

*

The members of Golden Smog--who have adopted pseudonyms--include Murphy and Wilco's Jeff Tweedy (a.k.a. David Spear and Scott Summitt), Gary Louris (Michael Macklyn) and Mark Perlman (Raymond Virginia) of the now-defunct Jayhawks, Noah Levy (Leonardson Saratoga) of the Honeydogs and Kraig Johnson (Jarrett Decatur), frontman for Minneapolis grit-rock band Run Westy Run.

They're all good friends who found an escape from the pressures of their other bands by visiting their country roots.

Success has not been easy for Murphy's regular outfit, Soul Asylum. While the group earned its reputation for its edgy rock, it was the uncharacteristically softer "Runaway Train" (1992) that swept it into the Top 10--at the same time that Nirvana was making the charts safe for punk.

The Jayhawks also saw their share of trouble. After their most successful album, last year's "Tomorrow the Green Grass," gained high-profile praise, the band broke up when singer-songwriter Mark Olson left. (Golden Smog's Johnson is playing guitar in the studio with the Jayhawks' remaining members, who plan to continue together under a new name.)

Golden Smog began before all of these troubles, starting as a couple of Minneapolis pickup groups in the late '80s. One was a lighthearted spoof that specialized in reworking songs by the Eagles.

"We'd play around every so often wearing ponchos," Murphy remembers. Another incarnation, the Satanic Majesty's Paycheck, started by playing Rolling Stones songs and branched out to anything it found amusing.

"We'd mostly do covers like Jim Croce songs--just to irritate people," Murphy says with a chuckle. "But people actually liked it."

The result was "On Golden Smog," an EP of cover songs released in 1992 by Minneapolis' Crackpot Records and re-released this year by Rykodisc. When the group returned to the studio (with Wilco and Son Volt producer Brian Paulson), Johnson unearthed a batch of original songs, and Murphy pitched in his own "Red Headed Stepchild," which was written for a Soul Asylum album but was never used. Soon everyone was offering original songs.

"We didn't even know it was going to be an album," Johnson says. "We just thought, 'Well, let's see how these songs work out. As it turned out, things were going so well and so fast that we kept going until we had a record."

The record, "Down by the Old Mainstream," is surprisingly consistent, given its five-day recording time and $5,000 budget. Playful hoedowns, sweet harmonies and jangling acoustic tapestries coexist gracefully with moodier undercurrents.

One highlight is "Nowhere Bound," an angst-filled ballad on which Soul Asylum singer Dave Pirner, an original member of Golden Smog, sings backup. The song about alienation and loneliness might have been penned by Harry Dean Stanton's character in the film "Paris, Texas."

"In the end it's charming," Murphy says of the album, "but it's kind of flawed. Considering the fact that it's five different songwriters . . . just a bunch of reluctant front-guys and shoe-gazers . . . it's amazing that it's cohesive at all."

* Golden Smog plays Saturday at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. 8 p.m. $15. (714) 496-8930.

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