These reissues complete Rhino's ambitious treatment of the Replacements catalogue, with all eight of the legendary (a shopworn word in rock criticism, but these guys deserve it, for reasons good and bad) Minneapolis band's official releases in expanded and remastered deluxe editions. Rhino's decision to release the records in two flights-- the first covering the Twin/Tone years, the second their time on Sire-- cleaves their career into distinct halves, a division that seems sharper now than it did at the time. Yeah, everyone back then noticed Tim's horrible record cover and weird production, but to those not tuned into major/indie politics, it just seemed like "The record after Let It Be," not a talking point for a discussion on what happens when underground bands sign with a major. But returning to these four records after a lengthy re-immersion in the Twin/Tone platters, one gets a sense of exactly what had changed. The run of 1981's Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash to 1984's Let It Be, for all the variety on display, feels of a piece, the work of a wildly creative and energetic band with a strong sense of exactly who they were. Each of the Sire albums, on the other hand, seems to begin with, "Well, I guess we can try this and see what happens." There's no sense of continuity, nothing builds from record to record. Every one seems to come from a band starting over.
Given its superior distribution and marketing push, Tim was the first Replacements album many people heard, which, as is so often the case, means that it's frequently mentioned as the favorite. And that's understandable. "Hold My Life", "Bastards of Young", and "Left of the Dial" are anthems, no doubt about it, real voice-of-a-generation kind of songs. But Tim also has range. The jazzy, midtempo "Swingin Party" is Westerberg with perfect emotional pitch-- funny ("Bring your own lampshade, somewhere there's a party") and also vulnerable (the narrator admits to being ignorant, weak, and terrified, but if he can find someone in the same situation to hang out with, he'll live). "Kiss Me on the Bus" is light, melodic, and charming guitar pop, another new wrinkle.
Great songs abound, but Tim has its share of issues. Something that had changed markedly-- and whether it was erratic lead guitarist Bob Stinson's rapidly diminishing role in the band or self-consciousness, I can't say-- is that the Replacements would never again sound convincing on a dumb rocker the way they had so many times over on those first four records. You take "Run It" from Hootenanny or "Customer" from Sorry Ma and place them alongside "Dose of Thunder" or "Lay It Down Clown", and the latter seem downright anemic. The Replacements were having a harder time with "silly," something that was as natural as breathing in the early days, but they kept trying all the way until the end.
Tim's other big problem is the sound. The remastering on all of these discs is done well, but problems with Tim go much deeper. Originally produced by Tommy Erdelyi of the Ramones, Tim comes over as thin, limp, and weirdly distant, hitting with less than half the force of the Let It Be. Ironically, since Erdelyi is a drummer, Chris Mars' percussion is especially feeble. The six bonus tracks included throw the production shortcomings into relief. The demo of "Kiss Me on the Bus"-- recorded with Erdelyi, but it sounds live in studio-- is raw and direct. The two outtakes of "Can't Hardly Wait"-- a song that wouldn't be officially released until Pleased to Meet Me, one acoustic and one electric-- both suggest a sonic road not taken in addition to highlighting how much Westerberg refined songs over time.
Pleased to Meet Me could be heard as an overcompensation for Tim's failings. Much was made of it being a digital recording, which in 1987 was seen as extravagant, the kind of thing Peter Gabriel and Dire Straits indulged in. "Look ma, no hiss!" read a review discussing the moment of silence between the horn hits in "Can't Hardly Wait" (the fact that there were horns to hit-- not to mention strings-- was also shocking) and Pleased to Meet Me was presented as the Replacements finally ready for the big time. The reality, though, is that the record was all over the place, too schizophrenic for the band to be easily grasped, kind of like Hootenanny with fleshed-out ideas, more confidence, and way better songs. Here the Replacements were tacking cocktail jazz ("Nightclub Jitters"), wholly acoustic ballads (the gorgeous "Skyway"), gritty proto-grunge ("The Ledge"), and paying tribute to their Memphis surroundings-- local hero Jim Dickinson produced-- on buoyant, Big Star-channeling power-pop ("Can't Hardly Wait" and "Alex Chilton").
Perhaps with Bob Stinson now out of the band (he died of drug-related causes a decade later), Westerberg felt freer to experiment, to try genres that would have been given an ironic reading a few years earlier. The obligatory burners ("Shooting Dirty Pool" and "Red Red Wine") once again feel forced, but Westerberg more than made up with that with three of the best rock songs he ever wrote: "I.O.U.", "Never Mind", and "Valentine". More personal and specific than their counterparts on Tim, this trio is littered with lines that bands since have built an entire identity on. Songs like "Birthday Gal" and "Photo", which didn't make the record and are now included as bonuses, suggest that Westerberg was on a songwriting roll, and alternate versions of "Alex Chilton" and "Can't Hardly Wait" are welcome.
And then the bottom dropped out. Or, so the story goes, anyway. For many, Don't Tell a Soul, with its slick production-- saxophones and violins were one thing, but synths?-- and generally muted tone spelled the end of the Replacements as we knew them, and the only point to debate is whether this record or All Shook Down was their career nadir. "End of the Replacements as we knew them" I can agree with, but then, they were pretty much a new band with each of their two previous records as well. Don't Tell a Soul was met with plenty of derision at the time, but an even larger reason for its bad rep since likely has to do with the fact that this is the sound emulated by the Replacements worshipers that took the band's somewhere bigger, your Goo Goo Dolls and Ryan Adams types. Not to mention that you can hear echoes of Westerberg's lackluster 90s solo output throughout, and "I Won't" is possibly the most unconvincing rocker they ever recorded, with its wailing harmonica and a mix that sounds like four guys recorded their parts on different continents.
But I submit that the softer, more careful, and certainly more polished band on display here-- one clearly hoping to straddle the gulf between college rock and MTV's "120 Minutes" and pop radio-- succeeds on its own terms. "Asking Me Lies" and "Talent Show" are damn catchy pop songs, and the latter is both bravely dorky ("It's the biggest thing in my life, I guess/ Look at us, we're nervous wrecks/ Hey, we go on next") and, as especially revealed in the superior studio demo included as a bonus, has a great riff. Ballads "Achin' to Be" and "They're Blind" are a little on-the-nose lyrically, but they capture that "I want the world to know that I'm special, but I also want to hide in a closet" feeling endemic to being a teenager as well as anything this side of Morrissey. And "I'll Be You" completely transcends its production and could fight for a spot in an all-time Replacements top 10. The bonus tracks here also might be the strongest of this whole batch, with the fine country-ish "Portland" (its "Too late to turn back, here we go" chorus was cannibalized for "Talent Show"), straightforward studio demos that show the hearts of good songs beating beneath the plastic exterior ("Talent Show" and "We'll Inherit the Earth"), and an appealingly weird studio goof with Tom Waits that's almost as good as that sounds (B-side "Date to Church").
All Shook Down, originally envisioned as Westerberg's solo debut, really does feel like the end, and it's not a happy one. The acoustic guitars are out in full force, singing is hushed, and Westerberg made much of the record with studio musicians, with only a couple of tracks featuring contributions from Tommy Stinson, Chris Mars, and Slim Dunlap, (the latter replaced Bob Stinson on Don't Tell a Soul). There are some pretty good songs-- "Merry Go Round", "When It Began"-- but the overall mood is sleepy, fatigued, and some of the songwriting feels rote ("Bent Out of Shape", "Attitude") with melodies and chords plugged in in a predictable way. Westerberg still had a way with a heart-tugging ballad ("Sadly Beautiful") but even then, that fine line between the affectingly melancholy and self-pityingly morose is crossed with some regularity. The bonus material here, appropriately enough, is by far the least interesting of the eight records, consisting mostly of warbly lo-fi demos. When Westerberg emerged with two underwritten, slight, but ultimately fun solo tunes on the Singles soundtrack two years later, it was like a breath of fresh air. All Shook Down is depressing in ways only partly intended.
The Replacements may never have figured out what kind of band they wanted to be or how they wanted to sound after leaving Twin/Tone, but there's still a clear thread binding almost all of their work together, and that was the worldview of Paul Westerberg. He didn't just tell stories with his songs, though he could do that too; he offered a way of looking at things that seemed both disarmingly familiar and previously unarticulated. Westerberg's POV also dovetailed perfectly with his band's career arc in a way that in retrospect seems uncanny. He celebrated people with talent who were scared of growth, those ready to upset the natural order of things not out of careful consideration of power relationships-- as was the case with politically oriented punk-- but because they were either hopelessly bored, had a childlike curiosity, or were just plain afraid. The outlook he tapped into was more universal than he could have imagined, and had been underrepresented in rock music until he came along. Now, of course, they're indie rock staples. The Replacements' influence on the alt-rock explosion of the 90s has been overstated, but their approach has continued to resonate in smaller scenes, where you feel like you're experiencing music up close, less mediated by rock star iconography. Their songs touch on some heavy shit, the kind of feelings best expressed in a more intimate space, but there's also plenty of room in there for some laughs. That kind of mixed-up place is right where the Replacements belong.
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