THE BEGINNING

ON SECOND THOUGHTS: Unlike most fans of The Replacements, Alex Wisgard doesn’t buy the idea that ‘Pleased to Meet Me’ was the end of the groups hot streak, or that follow up ‘Don’t Tell A Soul’ is the dud

replacements

PART ONE: “I’M THE BOY THEY CAN’T IGNORE FOR THE FIRST TIME IN MY LIFE, FOR SURE…”

There are people who will tell you The Replacements lost it when they signed to a major. There are people who will tell you The Replacements lost it when they fired Bob Stinson. The Replacements never lost it. They just tarted themselves up a bit.

1987’s ‘Pleased to Meet Me’ is generally accepted as the finale of the band’s hot streak, closing a trilogy started with the objectively perfect ‘Let It Be’ and ‘Tim’ – “an album alive with the crackle of conflicting emotions and kamikaze rock & roll fire,” so said Rolling Stone, although they probably said the same thing about the last U2 album). It’s home to some of the band’s stone-cold classics, along with the usual endearing mix of throwaway rockers and failed genre experiments.

Bob Stinson was out, reducing the band to a trio for the first and only time on record, but it was always Paul Westerberg’s band anyway, right? And after the production clusterfuck given to ‘Tim’, getting Memphis legend Jim Dickinson behind the boards was inspired. Given the Mats’ chaotic reputation, seeking out the man behind Big Star’s ‘Third’, the results of some of the most chaotic recording sessions ever, made total sense. And that artwork? That title? Only The Replacements could have got away with biting the hand that feeds them, then trying for the elbow.

So why have I never liked it all that much?

‘Pleased to Meet Me’ is the only point in the Replacements’ career where the band started trying, or at least tried really hard to sound like they weren’t trying. The horns and strings on ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’ are a sweet touch – who’d have expected those on a record from this band? – but it’s not a patch on any of the other four-or-so released recordings of the song. And do you really think Tommy Stinson came into the studio one day and said ‘Y’know what ‘The Ledge’ really needs? Someone playing bass flute.’? Can you even hear it? Would you miss it if it wasn’t there? Didn’t think so.

Still, there are some undeniable songs on ‘Pleased…’ – better writers have composed more heartbreaking prose on the subject of ‘Alex Chilton’ and ‘Skyway’, so I’m not even going to try. ‘Valentine’ and ‘Never Mind’ are the record’s underrated outliers – not often mentioned, perhaps because they’re the kind of power pop masterclasses Westerberg was churning out in his sleep by this point.

But, as on ‘Tim’, the dumb rock songs drag the LP right down; ‘I Don’t Know’, ‘Red Red Wine’ and ‘Shooting Dirty Pool’ just sound… unconvincing, a fact not helped by the precision and clarity of the newfangled digital recording technology used to make the record. Even if ‘Pleased to Meet Me’ was recorded live, its most visceral songs sound like the band members weren’t even in the studio together during the same month.

When an underground band makes their major label debut, the fans cry sell-out as the production gets cleaner, the songs get slicker and you can hear the money sing. And that’s the problem with ‘Pleased to Meet Me’ – their previous albums may have been sloppily recorded and sequenced, but that was part of their charm. By tidying up the production but leaving the sequencing haphazard, The Replacements left their own flaws glaringly exposed.

PART TWO: “WE MIGHT EVEN WITH THIS TIME, GUYS – YOU NEVER KNOW…”

“I had too much time to think while writing this album…” Paul Westerberg, SPIN, 1989

On paper, ‘Don’t Tell a Soul’ (‘Pleased To Meet Me’’s follow up in 1989) should be a disaster – a reverb-laden monolith to eighties expense and squandered promise. Instead, it’s a gorgeous album-length apology, the sound of a band balancing on the tightrope between success and failure. It’s not your average Replacements record, sure, all shiny and structured, with new recruit Slim Dunlap (real name Bob, changed for understandable reasons) taking up lead guitar duties, but it still sounds like a Replacements album; flubs and studio chatter are left in, and for such a polished, eighties-sounding LP, it’s surprisingly spontaneous. And whereas on other Mats LPs the weakest tracks are the stoopid genre experiments, ‘DTAS’’s least inspired moments – ‘Anywhere’s Better Than Here’ and ‘I Won’t’ – are the ones which sound most like the band.

The thing that hits me hardest about ‘Don’t Tell a Soul’ is the way Paul Westerberg’s songs stopped sounding like they were written by an ex-punk, and began to get universal. His previous dalliances with balladry and country – ‘You’re Gettin’ Married’, ‘If Only You Were Lonely’ or ‘Waitress in the Sky’, say – were great in their own way, but always sounded like they were sung with a sneer. Now, Westerberg was writing songs like ‘They’re Blind’, the spiritual sequel to ‘Swingin Party’, a beautiful waltz-time kiss-off to detractors masquerading as a love song. He was writing songs like ‘Darlin’ One’, a full-on, love-it-or-hate-it Big Rock Ballad (on some days, it’s my favourite Replacements song) – all windswept “HEEEEEEY”s and overwrought key changes – for which you can almost imagine a video where a plaid-clad Slim plays a shiny Les Paul on a dusty cliff-top.

He was writing songs like ‘Achin’ to Be’.

Sure, ‘Achin’’ is still sorta off-hand and a bit jokey (that harmonic solo can’t have been done with a straight face), but there’s some ambiguity there too. The lyric’s subject is “kinda like” an artist, a poet and a movie – hell, she may well be the original Manic Pixie Dream Girl – but ultimately she’s just “achin’ to be, just like me.” Does that mean she wants to exist free of the labels and flowery similes Westerberg has bestowed upon her, or – and who could blame her – is she achin’ to be just like Paul?

‘Talent Show’ is perfect because it celebrates and kisses goodbye to the band’s ineptitude; a rejigged version of one of the band’s best unreleased tracks, the gorgeous ‘Portland’, it’s based on The Paul Westerberg Riff – a descending, chiming thing that shows up, in various guises, on ‘Alex Chilton’, ‘Merry Go Round’, ‘Knockin’ on Mine’ and a whole bunch of others. The lyrics are at once self-deprecating, self-congratulating and brutally honest – “It’s the biggest thing in my life, I guess/look at us – we’re nervous wrecks” – and when the song breaks down in the middle, in a fumble of tentative notes and clinked glasses, the whole thing sounds kinda like (ahem) a meta-exercise in trying to recapture the piss and vinegar of the band’s early days.

And then there’s ‘I’ll Be You’. An actual, real-life #1 Replacements hit single. Well, #1 on the Billboard Modern Rock charts, whatever that means. But let’s take what we can get, yeah? It’s the point where all of the Replacements’ pop savvy – its riff a mutant take on ‘Every Breath You Take’, chorus peppered with girl-group-style call and response vocals, and a guitar solo that thrills by not really being a solo at all – converges in three miraculous minutes, a sure-fire hit that never once sounds like it’s pandering to get there. And Westerberg’s lyrics are, as ever, bursting with perfect non-sequiturs (“if I was from Canada, then I’d best become lonesome”), arch turns of phrase (“a dream… too tired to come true”) and one line so great Tom Petty had to nick it without a credit. Oh how times change.

Sure, The Replacements may look back on the album as a “temporary lull” in the unpredictable mess that is their discography, but ‘Don’t Tell A Soul’ proved that they could flirt with the big leagues and mature a little without really having to grow up at all. Really, The Replacements’ seventh album is their secret weapon. Don’t tell a soul.

dot

Next Article »