LET ‘EM BE The Replacements

Rhino
returns to the Westerberg well with its second batch of expanded ‘mats
reissues.

 

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

 

It’s no exaggeration to trumpet the Replacements as one of
the most influential American bands of the ‘80s.  Cited as essential inspiration by many of
those groups that followed in their wake, they left an indelible imprint that
lingers to this day.  Yet, given their
initial ramblings, it seemed an unlikely proposition at the time; their early
albums for Minneapolis’
Twin/Tone label were ragged, ramshackle affairs that seemed to reflect a band
whose sole intent was to toss a defiant middle finger in the direction of the
musical mainstream.   After all, they had
modeled their mantra from punk’s template, but seemingly had little interest in
making a significant statement of their own. 
Nihilistic and antagonistic, they staked their reputation on an
irreverent attitude and insurgent fuck-all defiance.

 

That all changed with 1984’s Let It Be, their Twin/Tone swansong and first album to show them
striving for higher ambitions. Paul Westerberg, the band’s acknowledged leader
and chief protagonist, was steadily stretching out as a songwriter, his efforts
culminating in “I Will Dare,” the first of several standout songs the Replacements
would offer in the albums that followed. 
The band’s pop potential was then kick-started with their signing to
Sire in 1985, a move meant to bring them a hint of respectability and expand
their popularity beyond their core following and towards MTV’s millions.  After all, Sire was the label that had
previously fostered the unwashed, untamed energy of the Talking Heads and the
Ramones and then successfully marketed them to the masses.

 

After issuing expanded re-releases of the Mats’ Twin/Tone catalogue
earlier this year, Rhino (www.rhino.com) has opted to tackle the second half of
the band’s discography by giving similar treatments to the four Sire sets.  Those unfamiliar with the band’s original
output will probably find these offerings more accessible, a change in
direction that almost certainly had something to do with their newly- acquired
major label stature. Whether or not the band would acknowledge any such
concessions seems questionable, but with Tim, their first release for their new label, the change was already
evident.  Although it retained a few
frayed edges, the sound was cleaned up, polished and made more accessible; even
those tracks producer Tommy Erdelyi (AKA Tommy Ramone, the original Ramones
drummer) applied an obtrusive reverb to had the band sounding like they were
playing from inside an echo chamber. 

 

Still, the songs stood out, and populist anthems like “Kiss
Me on the Bus” and “Bastards of the Young” showed a willingness to temper their
irascible approach with a modern rock sensibility.  The breezy “Waitress in the Sky” and downcast
demeanor of “Here Comes a Regular” cast a new light on the ‘Mats’ moody
ambiance, a digression that helped the band earn some of the best notices of
their career while also providing promise for a bigger breakthrough.  So too, “Left of the Dial” became something
of an alt-rock standard, its parched chorus of “…on and on and on and on…”
imbuing it with a riveting refrain. Like each of the other reissues, it
features an array of demos and unreleased material, along with detailed liner
notes that offer additional insight into the album as a whole.  Two early versions of “Can’t Hardly Wait” – a
song that would surface on their next album in finished form — along with an unreleased
rocker, “Nowhere Is My Home,” originated with some early sessions overseen by
their idol and inspiration Alex Chilton, while a demo of “Kiss Me on the Bus”
and an alternate version of “Waitress in the Sky” showcase those songs in more
primal mode.  Finally, Westerberg’s early
solo take on his confessional “Here Comes a Regular” strips the song down to
its emotional core, although the bare bones arrangement remains strikingly
similar to the original. 

 

It didn’t take long for the band to hit their stride, and
indeed, their second Sire set is the best of the bunch.  Please
To Meet Me
was, in a very real sense, a dream come true… not only for the
fact that it boasts some of the best songs in the ‘Mats’ canon – including the
fully fleshed out version of “Can’t Hardly Wait,” the confessional “Red Red
Wine” and their ode to their iconic hero, “Alex Chilton” – but also because it
offered the opportunity to record at the legendary Ardent Studios in Memphis
with producer Jim Dickinson (whose previous credits included, not
coincidentally, Chilton’s band Big Star). 
Ironically, each of the albums in their Sire trajectory would find a
different person in the producer’s chair, but whether through motivation, music
or simply magic, Dickinson
provided an ideal synergy.  Now reduced
to a trio due to the departure of longtime guitarist Bob Stinson, the band
finds a perfect compromise between the unrepentant attitude of old and a newly
engaging embrace.  The reissue provides a
bonus bonanza in the form of thirteen additional tracks, two of which aren’t
even listed on the sleeve.  An affable
rocker, “Bundle Up,” a breezy version of “Valentine” and the crunching
caterwaul of “Photo” stand out, but the proclamation put forth on “Kick It In”
(“Our plan was to set the world on fire…”) found them proudly echoing their
intent.  

 

Even so, despite the promise of its predecessor, the band’s
third album for the label and first to feature new guitarist Slim Dunlap, Don’t Tell A Soul, was a make-it or
break it proposition, the result of record company pressures that demanded a
hit at any cost.  As a result, the album
does away with all the tattered extremes, as producer Matt Wallace tempered the
band’s approach with more homogenized sound in an effort to sow commercial
consumption.  With the sole exception of
“I Won’t,” the more upbeat offerings eschew the brash, bombastic excess of
their earliest albums, injecting power pop precision and a sonic sheen into
signature songs like “Talent Show,” “Back to Back,” “We’ll Inherit the Earth”
and “I’ll Be You” and even some uncharacteristic funk into “Asking Me Lies,” a
track that might have otherwise found a fit with fellow Minneapolis denizen,
Prince.  It also finds Westerberg baring
his sentimental side via the haunting “Rock ‘n’ Roll Ghost” and the heartfelt
coda “Darlin’ One.”  Happily, the add-ons
allow the band to go back to basics, from the frayed country rock of “Portland” to the all-out
abandon of the heretofore-unreleased “Wake Up.” 
A choppier take on “Talent Show” and an edgier attempt at “We’ll Inherit
the Earth” recall the Replacements of old, but ultimately, it’s an unruly cover
of the Slade standard “Gudbuy T’ Jane” that give their rowdier inclinations
opportunity to rebound. 

 

The Replacements broke up in 1991, but there was one last
album to come, the aptly titled, Scott Litt-produced All Shook Down.  Some contend
it was more a Paul Westerberg solo opus than an actual Replacements record per
se, and the fact that Westerberg’s demos served as the foundation of the
arrangements gives credence to that assertion. 
Certainly it’s his cavalier persona and parched vocals that take center
stage, although the swagger and confidence he showed here has much in common
with the Faces and Stones, especially when Keef’s at the helm.  That’s never more evident than on assertive,
spiraling rockers like “When It Began,” “Someone Take the Wheel,” “Happy Town”
and “Attitude,” a song that more than most sums up the band’s irascible
outlook.  The extras offer early attempts
at several of the album’s signature songs, although it’s the three tunes
originally released on a promo only
EP (given the disparaging title Don’t
Sell Or Buy, It’s Crap
) that provide the reissue’s real treasure trove. 

 

In the midst of its ramshackle rock ‘n; roll, All Shook Down contained what was then
Westerberg’s best ballad, “Sadly Beautiful.” 
Those two words seemed to sum up the ‘Mats’ fate, one that portended
great promise but tragically never reaped their full potential.

 

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