Don't be fooled by the alluring "bat girl" on the cover; this is not the work of some new gothic rock band. "Weird Tales" is the third release from the alt-country supergroup featuring Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, the Jayhawks' Gary Louris and Marc Perlman, Soul Asylum's Dan Murphy, and Run Westy Run's Kraig Johnson. For this album the boys enlisted Big Star co-founder Jody Stephens to play drums, and they get to use their real names (contract problems made it necessary to use pseudonyms on the last album, which added a fun element of "guess who's who" when listening). The boys all sing and play guitar, bass is usually handled by Marc, and lead vocals sung by whoever wrote the song.
Usually when artists get involved with side projects it is because they want to explore new territory or to work with a group of friends; Golden Smog seems to be the latter. Tweedy's songs sound like Wilco, Louris's songs sound like the Jayhawks, Murphy's songs sound like Soul Asylum, etc. It works though, melding seamlessly together through the members' collective love of a good hook, harmonized vocals, and the strumming of guitars. This common ground creates a unifying thread from song to song despite the different moods, textures, and voices that each songwriter brings to the mix. Breaking from the well-produced sounds of their respective bands, these guys are playing in a loose, carefree style. Think of a great roots rock band playing in a small club after hours just for the fun of it, and you'll have a good idea of what this album is like.
I'm not very familiar with Run Westy Run, and Johnson's contributions here make it difficult to imagine what their music is like, for he demonstrates the greatest range of the four principal songwriters. "Keys" (written with Louris) has a real R&B feel, complete with strong beats and horn fills. "Looking Forward to Seeing You" is an upbeat country rock tune, and "Making Waves", despite being a melancholy OD story, is just as catchy. His two other tunes, "If I Only Had a Car" and "Jennifer Save Me" (both written with Louris), are edgy slow numbers; the former reminiscent of Neil Young with Crazy Horse and the latter featuring a whiny moog synthesizer and guitar feedback.
On the songs not written with Johnson or Tweedy, Gary Louris treads territory very close to the Jayhawks; country influenced Byrds-style rock. I must say that I wish the last Jayhawks album had been as strong as Louris's work on this album. Dan Murphy also outshines his respective regular gig. The opening tune, "To Call My Own", is a delightful piece of power pop that blows the doors off Soul Asylum's recent efforts. I'd even say he's a better singer than Dave Pirner (who shows up on this record for some back-up vocals). Of course, it's much easier to pound out one or two solid tracks than an entire album, but perhaps this group will inspire these two on their next Soul Asylum record.
After the albums "Being There" and "Mermaid Avenue", Jeff Tweedy is quickly becoming one of my very favorite artists. When his voice pops up on this record it's clear that the life of the party has arrived. The ease with which he is able to toss off a great pop tune is astounding. "Please Tell My Brother" is a perfect example. The song features Jeff alone with his guitar. It's simple, it's lightweight, and it sounds like it could have been made up on the spot, but it won't leave your head and the sincerity of its sentiment is undeniable. "I Can't Keep From Talking" and "Lost Love" (written with Louris) are easily the album's standout tracks with their wonderful melodies and heartfelt vocals.
The album contains a few misfirings; even the magical Tweedy occasionally turns out a below average effort. The nature of the album makes it easy to forgive the dips in quality; this is not meant to be groundbreaking material or the shining moment someone toiled over endlessly for the sake of art. This is a record by a group of guys who like making music. Fans of the alt-country sound (particularly the Jayhawks and Wilco) will easily fall under the carefree spell this album spins, but anyone who enjoys bar band style playing and good hooks will want to take a listen.