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Golden Smog’s newest reaches back in time

Stewart Oksenhorn
Special to the DailyWidespread Panics Earth to America is the kind of album the jam band could do in its sleep at this point. Frontman John Bell, aka JB, leads the group in concert Sunday at Winter Park.
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Can a band populated by artists who most people have never heard of constitute a “supergroup?” If so, Golden Smog is building a case for being the most super supergroup ever, in terms of actual output. (And not in terms of how supergroups are usually rated: how super the component parts are, and how short the group falls of being more than the sum of its parts.)Golden Smog, rather than being a collection of widely recognizable names, comprises members of reasonably well-known groups: Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, Gary Louris and Marc Perlman of the Jayhawks, Dan Murphy of Soul Asylum. And Golden Smog is seriously in danger of becoming an actual band, rather than a supergroup side project; “Another Fine Day” is their fourth album, counting the debut EP from 1992.”Another Fine Day” marks another step up, and when you consider that the group’s last CD, 1998’s “Weird Tales,” is considered a classic in some circles, that makes the latest a work to be reckoned with. Golden Smog works as a series of mini-collaborations, with songs credited to different songwriting pods. (Louris seems to be the most active writer of the collective.) The sounds reach back to Byrds- and Buffalo Springfield-style country rock (the remarkable title track), Beatlesesque experimentation, heavy on the George Harrison end of things (“Beautiful Mind”), and ’80s New Wave (“Corvette”), with touches of the Jayhawks’ sublime harmonizing and Wilco’s sonic experiments. This is how every supergroup should work – a pull and tug and crosshatch of styles and influences. With, of course brilliant songwriting and lovely singing.

John, The Aspen Times’ Spreadhead-in-residence, isn’t particularly impressed with “Earth to America,” the latest studio album by his favorite band. Nor is he particularly concerned with the so-so effort; Panic is made for the live stage, not the studio.”Earth to America” seems to play to these expectations. As far as studio recordings go, the band is on cruise control, turning out decent but hardly earth-shaking variations on their Southern rock. The fact that “Earth to America” opens with the slow, monotonous, 11-minute “Second Skin” is solid evidence that Widespread is playing to the converted. Only on “Ribs and Whiskey,” an acoustic, boogie blues, does the band get even a little outside its realm; no surprise, it’s the song that makes the biggest mark. Even bringing in guest players on several tracks (the Compass Point Horns, the Phuket Chamber Orchestra) has only a there-and-gone impact.

This would be less distressing were it not for the fact that Widespread has proved it can go into a studio and emerge with magic. In 1999, the Georgia sextet blessed its audience – and beyond – with “‘Til the Medicine Takes,” an ambitious example of jambandia that experimented with turntables and styles. As for “Earth to America,” it is the kind of thing Widespread could do in its sleep at this point, forever and on.Widespread Panic plays Sunday in Winter Park.



The “American Recordings” series, coaxed out of Johnny Cash by producer Rick Rubin, seemed like a gift from the heavens from the first volume, back in 1994. Rubin got the country legend to record a massive pile of songs, ranging from old spirituals to Bob Marley, new originals to a chilling, memorable version of Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage.” It was a spectacular coda to a fading career, one that mixed the rebel vigor of early Cash with the frailties of old age.So what should we think of “A Hundred Highways,” the fifth volume in the series, recorded in the months before Cash’s September 2003 death, and released nearly three years later? Something from beyond heaven? Cash sounds weaker, but more determined, than ever, finding strength in the apparent effort to get the phrases out. The song selection is wonderful: a trio of end-of-the-line songs ( “Help Me,” the traditional “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” and “Like the 309,” the last song Cash penned) give way to an improbable take on Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind,” transformed here from lightweight to meaningful. Every song, including Bruce Springsteen’s “Further on Up the Road,” Ian Tyson’s “Four Strong Winds” and the finale, “I’m Free From the Chain Gang Now,” get a boost in meaning from the circumstances under which Cash recorded – just after the death of his wife, June Carter Cash, and knowing his own demise was chasing his tail.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com.


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