Graded on a Curve:
The Replacements,
The Sire Years

Much of The Replacements’ deserved reputation rests upon their work for the Minneapolis indie Twin/Tone, and last year fans desirous of owning said material on vinyl were given the treat of a 4LP box set. But it’s hard to find a lover of the ‘Mats who gives up on the crew after the transition to Sire; if The Twin/Tone Years ended with a peak, a high percentage of its follow-up collection hangs in the vicinity of those heights as the remainder documents their decline. Offering a pair of absolute gems and the rocky but convulsively interesting later period of an oft disheveled band, The Sire Years is out now.

Born in the tail end of the 1970s and surviving into the early ’90s (of course, there was a reunion), The Replacements stand as one of the defining acts of the decade between. Consequently, there is no shortage of synopses of these booze-soaked underdogs’ existence, though the consensus on later achievements gets a little bit thornier as the story heads to its conclusion.

1981’s Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash established trashy punk parameters as ’82’s “Stink” EP found them dabbling with hardcore a la hometown contemporaries Hüsker Dü. ’83 brought Hootenanny’s rough-edged growth spurt, the album capturing increasing flirtations with true greatness; ’84’s follow-up marked a more significant rendezvous with the masterful, Let It Be standing as one of the ‘80s finest albums and a cornerstone of proudly unpolished pop-rock.

Part of The Replacements’ appeal derived from their collective persona as the guys least expected to succeed, and like many of those told they ain’t never going to amount to nothin’, they could engage in bouts of self-sabotage; the gradually deteriorating gig issued on the ’85 cassette-only release The Shit Hits the Fans would’ve spelled serious trouble for most bands, but in this instance hearing the wheels come off proved part of the allure (the admittedly small Okie crowd stayed to the end).

Some groups appear so driven and talented that success was basically inevitable. It was sorta that way with the quartet of University of Georgia attendees comprising R.E.M; by contrast, The Replacements were reportedly all high school dropouts. It probably doesn’t seem so to those hearing Hootenanny and Let It Be at a lengthy remove from their decade of origin, but both albums carried an atmosphere of luck and defeated odds in actually making it to the pressing plant and into record stores across the country.

It was an aura bound to conflict with their signing to Sire, but in retrospect the ‘Mats’ major label switch yielded two brilliant albums. The best is the first; Tim, released in the fall of ’85, transitioned Let It Be’s outburst of quality into an extended streak, the gruffly melodic opener “Hold My Life” positioned to quash fears longtime aficionados might’ve been harboring over the move to the big leagues.

Not that the change wasn’t noticeable, as Tim is the cleanest of their albums up to that point. Efficiently produced by Tommy Ramone (working as Thomas Erdelyi), the guitars remained raw and the rhythms vigorous as aspects of their punk beginnings lingered. They were also becoming more adept at invigorating well-worn maneuvers into fresh scenarios.

That’s the pleasure of “I’ll Buy” in a nutshell as the hearty guitar pop of “Kiss Me On the Bus” increases the sensibility of classique = modern and drives home Westerberg’s sharpening talent as a songwriter; without it, the crisply strummed change of pace “Waitress in the Sky” (which relates to an apparent slight by a flight attendant) would register as just petty (it still can’t help sounding fairly petty). “Dose of Thunder” and side two’s “Lay It Down Clown” help to counterbalance the refinement as they wholeheartedly rock out; both would fit perfectly fine on a mixtape ‘80s radio-friendly hard rock.

“Dose of Thunder” and “Waitress in the Sky” provide just enough momentum in a minor mode to effectively increase the impact of “Swingin Party” at the end of side one. A gemlike slice of auteur pop kicking dirt in the ballpark of anything likeminded from the era, it surely bugged many as a gesture of sophistication and by extension inspired assessments of Tim as being a mite too calculated.

However, if the anthemic riffing of stone classic “Bastards of Young” doesn’t render such a view irrelevant, the song definitely complicates it. Maturing and on the move, The Replacements wielded a savvy awareness of their potential popularity; basically destined to be shut out of commercial radio, “Left of the Dial” paid tribute to the low-wattage stations that claimed these dropouts and turned them into a cornerstone of the decade’s college rock sound. It endures as one of Tim’s strongest successes.

After that, things wind down nicely with the rocker “Little Mascara” and the clean-strummed ache-pop of “Here Comes a Regular,” the finale radiating facets of accessibility consistently tamped down by a spirits-soaked downtrodden vibe reinforcing that The Replacements were still solidly traveling down the right creative track.

Due to the exit of guitarist Bob Stinson, many have a large bone to pick with ’87’s Pleased to Meet Me, and that’s perfectly understandable. But the writing was on the wall with Tim, and if the program was increasingly becoming the Paul Westerberg Show, bassist Tommy Stinson and drummer Chris Mars remained engaged, the tunes were still strong and the widening aural palette was guided by veteran roots oddball Jim Dickinson (he of the Dixie Flyers, Dixie Fried and the piano on the Stones’ “Wild Horses” to list but a few credits).

So it’s really not that surprising how well things hold up. “I.O.U.” kicks up a thunderstorm right out of the gate and leads into one of the LP’s higher profile numbers; considering Alex Chilton’s involvement with Tim (vocal and production input on “Left of the Dial”) and his guest guitar on Pleased to Meet Me’s “Can’t Hardly Wait,” it’s maybe a little odd that Westerberg would pen a tune so openly admiring of the dude, but hey, the chunky pop-rock of “Alex Chilton” stands as a late ’80s anthem.

And if children by the million have yet to sing for the subject, it’s safe to assume that thousands were introduced to the man’s stuff by Westerberg and company via college radio, MTV, and the righteously blaring stereos of older brothers and sisters. It’s also the perfect song to ease the surprise the following cut holds, namely the arrival of horns. Horns? Yup. The reality is that the additive of baritone sax works gangbusters, serving as an adhesive during the steamrolling grogginess of “I Don’t Know.”

Bluntly, it would’ve been something of a waste to draft Dickinson and not use horns. The producer also gets the lounge vibe just right on “Nightclub Jitters” and captures the serious tone of album highlight “The Ledge” very well; a ringer for the shortlist of Westerberg’s truly great songs, it’s elevated by thorough engagement from the group.

In striving to fill the void of a missing Bob without straight-up Replacing him (yet), they don’t strain; Pleased to Meet Me has been described as the tangible end of The Replacements as a band concept, and that scenario goes out with a bang, “Never Mind” and “Valentine” injected with the appropriate level of energy; this wasn’t the same crew that made Let It Be, but the tendons connected to it were still intact.

“Shooting Dirty Pool” retains the ’80s Sunset Strip-esque swagger that always helped differentiate them from tepid collegiate jangling, while “Red Red Wine” adjusts the template toward punk-tinged singalong rock with roaring Berry-descended soloing. “Skyway” shifts into acoustic mode for the penultimate spot, a potentially hackneyed maneuver pulled off through strength of material and delivery.

It leads into a gem, “Can’t Hardly Wait” infusing a solid hunk of riff-pop with horns, strings and a sterling vocal turn from Westerberg. The direction was firmly forward; the only question was could they sustain it. The answer was no, but first of all, “they”; ’89’s Don’t Tell a Soul filled the vacated guitar position with Slim Dunlap, and while the Minneapolis resident sufficiently fills the spot, the finished product still resonates like Paul Westerberg and his backing band.

This is not the same as a Westerberg solo album in disguise (that would come next) and isn’t really the biggest part of the problem anyway; if the stylistic pendulum had swung away from Big Star toward Elvis Costello & the Attractions and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (with whom they toured), the adjustment was successful if an undeniable letdown.

A larger issue with Don’t Tell a Soul is a production approach by Matt Wallace and the band unambiguously geared toward airplay, and not the university type; in one sense, this was also a success, as “I’ll Be You” was The Replacements’ sole modest crossover hit. But on the other hand, the drum sound is suddenly, dreadfully ‘80s, and it would be basically impossible for a newcomer to detect that the musicians responsible ever toured the punk circuit, much less released The Shit Hits the Fans.

That’s even true with “Anywhere’s Better Than Here” a cut that’s aggressiveness seems like a deliberate attempt to offset the general polish surrounding it. The other hindrance is that Westerberg’s songs, while never stinking up the joint, just aren’t as strong as his prior work. There are certainly solid moments, with “Back to Back” improving upon the underwhelming opener “Talent Show,” but more frequently exhibited is a blend of good and bad ideas.

“We’ll Inherit the Earth” is a sturdy foundation designed for Big Emotional Release, but unlike “I Will Dare” and “Bastards of Young” things feel labored, the pump getting primed until the well is dry. “They’re Blind” merely shakes hands with ‘60s pop when a full-on embrace is called for, and on the decidedly lesser side “I Won’t” commits the sort of rootsy errors the ‘Mats had previously avoided as the moody strum of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Ghost” never really goes anywhere.

In the plus column is the Wilco-predicting country-rock of “Achin’ to Be,” with the pop-funky “Asking Me Lies” giving the impression that Westerberg had been binging on Orange Juice; a little off-putting at first, it’s ultimately a grower leading into the perfectly fine pop-rock of “I’ll Be You.” Emblematic of Don’t Tell a Soul overall, “Darlin’ One” works hard to end the album on an adequate note.

It probably should’ve been the end, and in a way it was. Coming fairly quickly after Don’t Tell a Soul, ’90’s All Shook Down was initiated as Westerberg’s solo debut, though at some point a retreat was made; each of the band members appears across the set but are reportedly all together only on the modest acoustic run-through “Attitude.” Noted R.E.M. producer Scott Litt intermittently molds the contents into a more logical successor to Pleased to Meet Me, but for the most part things unwind like an alt-rock singer-songwriter outing.

Reinforcing this intent, the set is sprinkled with guest stars. Specifically, there’s John Cale’s viola at the end of the borderline maudlin “Sadly Beautiful,” Terry Reid’s backing vocals on the punchy pop of “Someone Take the Wheel,” and a duet with Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde on the frankly baffling wailer “My Little Problem.” Also on board are Heartbreaker Benmont Tench, Steve Berlin of Los Lobos and The Blasters, and noted Jerseyite Dave Schramm.

Opener “Merry Go Round” clarifies the focus on songs; outside of some crunchy momentum in “Bent Out of Shape” and the aforementioned “My Little Problem” there’s little emphasis on real rocking, though a fair amount of the disc is upbeat and/or forceful, e.g. “One Wink at a Time,” the rhythmically cracking “Nobody,” “Somebody Take the Wheel” and the acoustic strum fest “Torture.”

It’s in the amiable pop of “When It Began,” the faux-neo-folky ambiance of the title track, the mildly Costello-like motion with Petty-ish highlights of “Happy Town” and the unabashed piano bench tune spinning of closer “The Last” that Westerberg’s heart can be found. They make All Shook Down less of a disappointment than its predecessor, partially because nobody knowledgeable would mistake it for a Replacements album in anything but name.

Undoubtedly some will feel this review rates Tim and Pleased to Meet Me too highly while others will view the assessments of Don’t Tell a Soul and All Shook Down as short shrift (or too kind still). But if there are few surprises in the evaluations above and grades below, the lack of twists testifies to the core truth of The Replacements enduring appeal. Amongst crushed empties and overturned ashtrays, they rose to greatness, holding onto it longer than anyone would’ve thought possible, the inevitable slippage occurring with a modicum of embarrassment and a fair amount of grace.


Pleased to Meet Me

Don’t Tell a Soul

All Shook Down


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