Their persona is so well defined: The Replacements were the working-class kids bursting with talent but always ready to squander it; the bratty wise guys with a sensitive streak who refused to play by the rules. But the group's persona has a distancing effect for those who are new to the band. There's never been a shortage of thirty and fortysomethings reminiscing about the 'Mats. You read about the sloppily brilliant live performances, the massive quantities of beer consumed, the backstage hijinks; questionable theories are proffered, something about how this band should, if there were any justice in the world, have had pop hits and been on the radio. You hear such things from the people who were there, man, and it's tempting to dismiss the Replacements as a Gen X nostalgia trip and turn your attention to some unexplored corner of post-punk, maybe a boundary-pushing band with an experimental bent. The idea of the Replacements has a lot to do with why they've endured, and as archetypes go, it's a compelling one. But sometimes it gets in the way.
It'd be nice if these reissues from Rhino, which remaster and generously expand upon the band's four early records for their hometown imprint Twin/Tone, can bring us back to what the Replacements were: a creative, smart, silly, exuberant, and often hilarious rock'n'roll band. Rhino has done everything right with these records, giving them the sort of treatment they deserve. The liner notes and documentation are detailed; the bonus cuts generous and well chosen. This crucial part of the Replacements story is finally available in all its detail, and hopefully, it'll help us hear the music again in a fresh way. There's a lot worth exploring.
Hearing these records again, after having the originals in mothballs for quite a while, has been a revelation. It's not that they're top-to-bottom great (well, except for one of them, but more on that in a sec), because the Replacements weren't really that kind of act. But boy, they had songs and they could play, right from the start. Before these reissues, when someone would say that the band peaked with their first album, 1981's Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash, I'd assume they were either: 1) a serial contrarian, 2) someone who finds punk rock to be music's greatest expression, or 3) crazy. Surely, the Replacements improved as they went. But now, returning to these records after so long, the "debut is best" take finally makes some sense. I don't agree with this assessment, not by a long shot, but I can understand why someone might. For a supposedly sloppy and tossed-off record, Sorry Ma comes across as weirdly majestic and strikingly consistent. Also, amusing: singer Paul Westerberg's self-deprecating liner notes, which helped launch the Replacements myth, suggest that he might have had second career writing comedy: "This song is proof that Chris Mars is one of the best drummers we could find at the time," he says of "Otto".
As the short, sharp tracks tick off, each is immediately arresting. If Mothers Against Drunk Driving hadn't formed the year before, the invigorating and dangerous jolt of "Takin a Ride" might have served as the organization's catalyst; "Customer" is comical fast-talking portrait of an instant crush; "Shiftless When Idle" is an early statement of purpose. Bob Stinson can't wait to bust out his searing solos. Everything sounds loose, live, and brimming with energy. Over 18 songs, only a couple are less than great. Among the 13 bonus tracks, the highlight is the four-song demo from 1980 the band originally gave to Twin/Tone's Peter Jesperson, hoping to get some club gigs. I'm trying to imagine the excitement when he popped it in his tape deck and heard "Raised in the City", with its relentless drive and chugga-chugga riff and a 20-year-old Westerberg sounding like he already knew a hell of a lot about it melody. No wonder Jesperson became their manager.
Then came Stink, the quickie EP follow-up from 1982. The cover's subtitle used to say "'Kids Don't Follow' Plus Seven" and its expanded version now reads "'Kids Don't Follow' Plus 11". Well, it's true: "Kids Don't Follow" is much better than these other songs. This is their true-blue punk record, and, while they pull it off, they sound too one-dimensional. The songs are entertaining, with titles alone that are good for a chuckle: "Fuck School"; "White and Lazy"; "Dope Smokin' Moron"; "God Damn Job". You can guess how they go without even hearing them; it's a record for a single mood. Some the outtakes are actually better: There's a great cover of Hank Williams' "Hey, Good Lookin" that was a live staple of the time, and their disemboweling of "(We're Gonna) Rock Around the Clock" is worth a few laughs. Stink is an important piece of the puzzle, but less interesting on its own.
Hootenanny is occasionally mentioned as the Replacements finest moment, the precursor to Let It Be that is funnier, more tossed-off, (i.e., more "Replacements") and also the most diverse offering in the band's catalogue. No argument on the latter; this thing is all over the place, and it has one example of just about everything they ever did. But too much of it sounds purposeless, the band amusing themselves rather than the listener. Some tracks have the whiff of something that would have been OK as B-sides, but sound underwhelming on an album proper. The title track isn't nearly as funny as it thinks it is; "Mr. Whirly", which mixes snippets of "Strawberry Fields Forever", "Oh! Darlin'", and "The Twist", is clever but skippable; "Lovelines", in which Westerburg half-sings personals ads while the band plays a peppy tune behind him, is infectious in the way that hearing someone else laugh makes you laugh, but it's also easy to forget. All that said: "Color Me Impressed" is possibly the best of the 10 or so proper Replacements Anthems, the moody "Willpower" improves on Stink's "Go", and "Run It" is as intense and joyous as any of the rave-ups on the debut. Bonus tracks here are also strong, mostly loud, fast, and snotty, with the exception of the bluesy acoustic demo "Bad Worker", about giving minimum effort for minimum wage. Essential for fans, but not the place to start.
Hootenanny's "Within Your Reach" found Westerberg stretching out and trying a love song of sorts, but it would take one more record before he really hit his stride with this sort of material. The leap in songwriting on Let It Be, the final Twin/Tone album, is dazzling. As a record, it's both simpler and more complicated than anything that came before. You want hardcore? "We're Comin' Out" is the most intense punk song they ever made. A no-frills declaration of love? You can't get much more concise than "Favorite Thing". There's the perceptive "I Will Dare", which seems like it's about a relationship but is also about the band ready to take on the world; the wailing "Unsatisfied", with its disarmingly direct expression of frustration. All of the contradictions and wild mood swings of youth can be found here somewhere.
Let It Be is widely praised as an independent rock classic and one of the finest albums of the 1980s, but before I started listening to this set, I didn't expect to rate it so highly. I kept thinking of songs that even fans of the record consider insignificant, namely "Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out", the cover of Kiss' "Black Diamond", the near-instrumental "Seen Your Video" and the silly "Gary's Got a Boner". Surely, this was filler.
But the more I listened, the more I realized that all these songs have their place, and each does work on the album that needs doing. Film critics like to speak of emotionally charged moments being "earned" by carefully laid groundwork in character development. The farther Westerberg went out on a limb with songs like "Androgynous" (all of a sudden he's the indie rock Cole Porter, looking out for the shy, arty types that didn't fit in) and "Sixteen Blue" (the ultimate articulation of teenage angst), the more empathy he showed and the more he needed ballast. The dumb songs offer relief and make the ballads hit that much harder. They also rip. It helps that this is the best-sounding record they ever made, and the rockers pummel like never before. The mix is clear; the guitars tear the space in half when they need to and ring clearly when they don't, when they throw in unusual instruments, they work. The six outtakes-- a couple of covers (of T. Rex and, uh, the DeFranco Family featuring Tony DeFranco), and two choice originals-- are strong, but they wouldn't have fit on a record that doesn't waste a note. Let It Be is, in its own way, perfect.
Being a fuck-up with a good heart is endearing when you're young; if you've not changed by the time you hit your late twenties, well, you're probably just pretty much a fuck-up, and eventually, you become annoying. All the contradictions in the Replacements' music, and in Westerberg's songwriting, are not something you can easily carry into adulthood, which is partly why the band would run into some trouble later on. But none of that matters here, when they were young and understood so much about youth. People change, but records don't, and that's part of what makes them great. They're frozen in place, ready to be found by people who need them. And if you haven't found these yet-- well, I'm jealous.
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