Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Replacements - Sire Reissues

Tim (*****)

Please To Meet Me (*****)

Don't Tell A Soul (***)

All Shook Down (**)

"If the Pixies are 7, then the 'Mats are 8..."

That tossed-off line, featured at the tail end of a cover of "Gudbuy t' Jane" - itself a play-on words from the Pixies classic "Monkey Gone to Heaven" - can effectively sum up the major label career of The Replacements. From the name on down, this was a band that knew they were second stringers from the day they formed. If their status was perennially underrated, the music they made over the course of a decade was anything but ordinary. The band's first three records (plus one EP) charted a rarely seen trajectory wherein a band of drunken misfits could hit upon something so singular and utterly devastating that they could literally shift the landscape of American rock music. Labels were taking note whether they wanted to or not, hoping the band could somehow reign in their wild antics to become poster boys for 80s soft rock. In the process, Sire Records got a little bit of both sides of the split personality of the 'Mats. For a while there in the mid 1980s, The Replacements were just as rowdy and raucous as ever, although over time the band would see their edge tempered in favor of a more streamlined sound. This yielded both gains and setbacks, but however you look at it, the four major label records The Replacements made from 1985 to 1990 were just as fascinating musical documents as their independent counterparts.

By the time of their major label debut, Tim, The Replacements were more or less a pop-rock band (before that sub-genre became a four letter word mind you). Their roots in punk and hardcore where still intermittently evident over the next few years, but the fiery intensity of their early years was never quite matched. With that being said however, The Replacements happened to be equally as great a pop band as they were a punk band. 1985s Tim houses a handful of the band's most beloved songs, making this by some margin their most popular album. "Kiss Me On the Bus", "Bastards of Young" and "Left of the Dial" were all college radio hits and continue to get airplay on your hipper modern rock stations to this very day. Frontman Paul Westerberg had completely taken the reigns of the band by this point as well, as he solely wrote each song here but one ("Dose of Thunder", perhaps not surprisingly the heaviest song on the album). Tim was a hit in underground circles and critics fawned over the band as they always had, yet mainstream audiences once again had little interest. Following the album's tepid response, original guitarist Bob Stinson was kicked out of the band. As the saying goes, and then there were three.

If 1984s Let it Be is the best Replacements album (and it is), then I have no problem calling 1987s Please To Meet Me my favorite Replacements record. After Tim failed to breakthrough, the 'Mats seemingly regained a bit of the restless abandonment of their Hootenanny days, as the resulting record saw the band incorporating their broadest swath of genres yet. Soul, jazz, pop, punk, anything was fair game to the 'Mats by this point, and as a result, Please To Meet Me may very well be the band's most underrated yet most likable album. The blistering "I.O.U.", the classic Big Star-referencing "Alex Chilton", the junkie's lament "The Ledge", the soft-as-silk "Skyway", and the pop culture classic "Can't Hardly Wait" are just a few of the standouts on a surprisingly deep record. This embrace of more palatable styles didn't earn the band any more listeners however, and as a result, Sire made it clear that their next record must be the one to catapult them to MTV fame or their days with the label were numbered.

And in a way, 1989s Don't Tell A Soul did just that. This was the record that finally featured The Replacements first true hit, "I'll Be You", after an 8 year career of churning out equally great pop songs. Slim Dunlap filled Bob Stinson's role on Don't Tell A Soul, and for better or worse, this was the first record to really stand outside of the core Replacements sound. That's not to say it doesn't house it's share of stellar moments. "Talent Show", "Back to Back", "Achin' to Be" and the aforementioned "I'll Be You" are all great latter day 'Mats songs. On the whole and as a complete record though, Don't Tell A Soul can sound dated and a little slight. The band began to experiment with vocal effects and new instruments, and by this time Westerberg had nearly fallen off the cliff into MOR oblivion. This was the last salvaged breath of the Replacements, a flawed but charming record that marked the end of the 'Mats in all but name.

The final album credited to the Replacements wasn't a Replacements record at all. 1990s All Shook Down was intended to be a Paul Westerberg solo album, as he wrote and recorded nearly all of the album by himself or with session musicians. The results, to say the least, were disappointing. Compared to the actual solo work Westerberg was doing at the time, particularly his wonderful contributions to the Singles soundtrack, All Shook Down merits little discussion outside of a couple of enjoyable but by-the-books pop numbers. Most all of the tracks presented here was sub-par even compared to the watered down Don't Tell A Soul material. Westerberg would go on to make some respectable solo records, but All Shook Down is both he and The Replacements collective nadir.

This career-long series of reissues from Rhino are among the most welcome and vital releases of the year. The selection of bonus tracks are, like the Twin/Tone reissues, mostly made up of alternate takes, demos and the occasional unreleased studio recording. Of the bonus material, the Don't Tell a Soul sessions seemed to yield the most interesting outtakes, including this review-spawning "Gudbuy t' Jane" and a wacky track featuring the inimitable Tom Waits . Nearly everything the 'Mats ever put to tape is worth owning though, and although they made an aesthetic out of being imperfect, the charm of their records lies in the fact that at no time have four musicians had as good a time making rock music as these four did. The proof is the pudding, and the Sire years in particular hold amongst it's ranks some of the most glorious pop music ever created.

The Replacements - "Bastards of Young" (live @ Maxwell's, New Jersey; 1986)

"Left of the Dial"

"I'll Buy"

"Can't Hardly Wait'

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