Far From The Old Mainstream
I just checked the Billboard Top 200. The top-selling long player? The latest by Usher. No. 2? The latest by Rush. Really? Who wants to hear a bunch of old prog rockers with high voices and phony libertarian politics? Here’s how the AllMusic guide describes that one, which is a “concept” album:
It centers on a loose narrative about a young man following his dreams. He struggles with inner and outer forces of order and chaos; he encounters an expansive world where colors, images, territories, and characters are embodied by pirates, strange carnivals, rabble-rousing anarchists, and lost cities. His enemy is the Watchmaker, a ruthless authoritarian presence who attempts to rule the universe and all aspects of everyday life with fascistic precision.
Yep, unicorn rock. Come sail away, lads.
But in the meantime, I recently downloaded some long players from Rhapsody for a couple of coast-to-coast flights. They feature real electric guitars, real acoustic guitars, real pianos, real cymbal crashes, an occasional mandolin, finely crafted melodies, and occasionally perfect harmonies.
One of them was “Down By The Old Mainstream” by Golden Smog, a supposed alt-country supergroup. Yes, they plowed some country fields. But this long player from 1995 is chock full of pure pop hooks and wistful melodies via Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Gary Louris of the Jayhawks. It was so far out of the mainstream in 1995 that it didn’t even make the Billboard Hot 200 album chart. Seventeen years later, its downright obscure.
But it shouldn’t be. It starts with a bit of pure melodic brilliance powered by piano hooks, a paean to a long-gone girl simply named “V.” Its worth a listen — or many listens — even if you have to watch a silly cell phone commercial first:
Two songs later you get “Pecan Pie,” Jeff Tweedy’s decidedly un-serious folky, extended metaphor for the girl of his dreams: “And a piece of pecan pie. And you that’s all I want. Just a piece of pecan pie. And all I want is you.” Then he sings about the whipped cream.
And that’s the other big joy of this long player. Its loose. Its ragtag. It never takes itself seriously. Its not about pirates, ruthless authoritarians and fascistic precision. Its just, well, fun. What else can you say about a collection with a song called “He’s A Dick,” about a guy that borrowed some cash from you years ago, did not pay it back and then looks away whenever he sees you? That happens in real life. But its not weighty enough stuff for those intellectuals in Rush and their Number 2 record in the nation.
But back to this music. Also check out “Friend,” which shifts nicely between casual mid-tempo mellowness and pounding power pop. “Down By The Old Mainstream” does that simply because it can. Its all over the place. By design.