There’s precious little variety to these early “hardcore” performances, most of which adhere to the "loud fast rules" credo also embraced by fellow Minneapolis contemporaries Soul Asylum and Husker Du. Still, though this is far removed from their more mature later work, there’s much to like here, though there are a few nondescript songs too many. Indeed, there are a few songs too many, period, 18 to be exact, only a few of which show the potential that would've enabled you to predict that The Replacements would become one of the greatest American bands of the ‘80s. This punk/garage rockin' incarnation of the band is certainly the rawest The Replacements ever got; obviously drunkenly bashed out, Paul Westerberg’s funny, off-the-cuff vocals (“I hate music, it’s got too many notes”) and developing songwriting skills are more than matched in inspiration by Bob Stinson’s demented guitar genius. As Westerberg states in the liner notes about a particular solo: “Bob's lead is hotter than a urinary infection,” and Stinson would rarely be showcased like this again. Though technically imperfect, Bob was a perfectly exciting player with a gloriously freewheeling and ferocious style. For their part, the rhythm section of Bob's younger brother Tommy (bass) and Chris Mars (drums) makes an impressive enough racket, but they were always support players, not stars. Anyway, although Westerberg's songwriting still had a ways to go in terms of delivering consistent material and some needed variety, he already was capable of delivering many a quotable lyric: the slacker attitude of lines like "I'm careless, couldn't care less," "I'm hanging downtown, anyway I got no place to go," and "I'm shiftless when idle, and I got time to waste" would later be lifted wholesale by Generation X, while "the way I used to love her that's how I hate her now" and "you're in love and I'm in trouble" are other examples of the type of notable one liners that would become a Westerberg specialty. Still, for all the sheer fun of songs such as "Takin' A Ride," "Careless," "Customer," "Hangin' Downtown," "Rattlesnake," "I Hate Music," "Shiftless When Idle," “Don't Ask Why,” and "I'm In Trouble," this stuff has its limits. Over the course of 18 songs only “Johnny’s Gonna Die,” a warning to Johnny Thunders that's surprisingly tender and affecting, does the band shift into the more serious gear that would propel them in the future. Nevertheless, the good old days were good indeed, though this was only a harbinger of even better things to come.
Stink (Twin/Tone EP ’82) Rating: B
The Replacements weren't really a hardcore band at heart, but they started with that style simply because those were the only kinds of clubs that they could play in. Fortunately, they’re good at this style, probably ‘cause even though they’re drunk and sloppy these guys still manage to put in impressive performances. And though most of these adolescent rants (song titles: “Fuck School,” “God Damn Job,” “White And Lazy,” “Dope Smokin’ Moron”) hardly hint at the artistic leap that they would soon take, this over-in-no-time 8-song EP offers up more primitive rock n’ roll that packs plenty of good guy goofball charm. On the plus side, Stinson sounds like he’s ready to wreck the place on songs such as "Kids Don't Follow," "Stuck In The Middle," and "Gimme Noise," the rhythm section crackles behind him, and Westerberg sings with energy and a snot-nosed conviction even when his voice can barely hold out. Unfortunately, the band's exceptional energy and enthusiasm can't compensate for Westerberg's half-assed songwriting on "Fuck School" and "Dope Smokin' Moron," while the faux white boy blues of "White and Lazy" was a bad idea. The best song here is probably the slower paced "Go," but by and large Stink succeeds in spite of (because of?) its crude limitations.
Hootenanny (Twin/Tone ‘83) Rating: B
This is a totally mixed bag that sees The Replacements (or the ‘Mats, as they're often affectionately called) aiming beyond their limited hardcore/punk/garage rock beginnings by showing admirable stylistic growth. It gets better than the throwaway cowpunk of the title track once the primal guitar roar of “Run It” runs into the highly melodic “Color Me Impressed” (the best song here) before entering the strange, atmospheric realm of “Willpower,” a hauntingly moody little number. The cool surf instrumental “Buck Hill” and the straight up country lope of “Treatment Bound” also reveal a real versatility, with the bands “let’s throw it up against the wall and see what sticks” philosophy working surprisingly well. “Within Your Reach” even shows the band successfully embracing synthesizers, while “Hayday” is the type of soaring ‘Mats anthem that would soon become commonplace. Alas, “Take Me Down To The Hospital” and "You Lose" show little that the band hadn't already done better before, and “Lovelines” is another forgettable filler despite grin inducing lines like “slightly overweight girls need sex also.” The end result is a fun but inconsistent album that isn’t quite fully developed, as one gets the distinct impression that Westerberg was still searching for the right sound. He’s almost there, though, and Hootenanny marks the near-fruition of the fruitful compromise that would really come into effect on Let It Be, where the band would further distance themselves from their pure punk-drunk roots by mastering the melodic element that would transform them into a truly great rock n’ roll band.
Let It Be (Twin/Tone ‘84) Rating: A
The first in a trio of albums on which The Replacements reputation primarily rests, Let It Be (ballsy title, no?) was a quantum leap forward from their first three albums. Simply put, this is the album on which this influential band of loveable drunks came of age, as their agreeably raw sound remained intact while Westerberg distinguished himself as a premiere songwriter with a knack for memorable melodies. The boys still don’t take themselves too seriously as a rule, as sophomoric song titles such as “Gary’s Got A Boner” and “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” (forgettable tracks both) suggest, but Westerberg also showcases a rare insight, intelligence, and tenderness in addition to his scruffy charm and sense of humor. Rarely has a songwriter better captured the essence of being young and in love than on “I Will Dare,” which opens the proceedings with an effortlessly inviting melody, plus a guitar solo from R.E.M.’s Peter Buck. “Favorite Thing” chugs along loudly but likewise has a singable chorus, while the band’s primal metal might is unleashed on “We’re Comin’ Out,” whose piano bridge provides an example of the band’s increased sophistication. “Androgynous” is an obvious highlight in the way that it marries Westerberg’s clever, tongue-in-cheek lyrics to an impeccable piano melody, but “Unsatisfied” is the highlight here. I’d never call Westerberg a great singer, but his rough, tobacco stained voice fits his material, and never better than on this tremendously affecting ballad, an all-time classic in my book. Elsewhere, “Seen Your Video” is a nice little (mostly) instrumental that shows how much more professional the band now sounded (in a good way), while other high points include the lovely "Sixteen Blue," which climaxes with Stinson’s classic guitar solo outro, and the desperate, just-been-dumped finale "Answering Machine." They even covered KISS ("Black Diamond," one of several songs featuring stellar guitar work from Stinson) well before that band became "cool" again, showing that The Replacements were a band who were truly ahead of their time.
Tim (Sire ‘85) Rating: A
Initially, I found The Replacements’ major label debut mildly disappointing after the raucous grandeur of Let It Be, but after many listens it eventually dawned on me that Tim was even better on a song-for-song basis, though producer Tommy Erdelyi (a.k.a. Tommy Ramone) unfortunately slicked up the sound to accentuate the band’s pop tendencies (not that it mattered commercially). On Tim, leader Paul Westerberg starts to dominate the band, and fortunately his razor sharp songwriting skills are up for the task, displaying a knack for catchy melodies (especially come chorus time) and witty one-liners such as “the only exercise you ever got is the shakes.” On the anthemic front, “Bastards Of Young” features soaring guitars that Goo Goo Dolls (the most obvious example of a band who took the 'Mats musical formula to the bank) fans will surely recognize, and “Left Of The Dial” is a wonderful ode to college radio on which they’re joined by alternative icon Alex Chilton. The bouncily amorous “Kiss Me On The Bus” segueing into the mindlessly metallic “Dose Of Thunder” shows Westerberg’s ever-expanding songwriting range, while “Little Mascara” has the classic ‘Mats paradox of sad lyrics matched to an irresistibly catchy melody. On the more sedate side is “Swingin Party,” which makes me slowly sway to its lovely melody, and the touching “Here Comes A Regular,” a beer-soaked ballad that musically recalls Bob Dylan's "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" and lyrically in retrospect can be seen as being a goodbye to Bob Stinson (alas, as is so often the case, the song today has an added resonance due to Stinson's early death after years of alcohol abuse in 1995). Elsewhere, "Hold My Life" starts the album with a razzle dazzle (i.e. really good) chorus (love Westerberg's sighing vocals on this one), while the mean-spirited "Waitress In The Sky" would be a bummer were it not so damn hummable, helped along by a melody that's perhaps a tad too closely related to Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit In The Sky." Rounding out the set list, albeit not in chronological order, "I'll Buy" is also above average, even if details about it escape me at the present time, whereas the hard rocking "Lay It Down Clown" is easy to remember, if for all the wrong reasons (file it alongside "Dose Of Thunder" as this album's filler tracks). Also, perhaps due to the slick production, the band sounds tired at times, and the cleaned up instrumental attack takes less chances than on Let It Be (Stinson unfortunately reins in his guitar, or perhaps he was simply too boozed up to play it properly), resulting in less exciting performances. Fortunately, for all its flaws sound-wise, this album is all about Paul Westerberg's songwriting; whereas bands like Sonic Youth and Husker Du had an undeniable intensity and uniqueness to their sound, this band was always only as good as their songs. Tim contains some truly classic songs - "Hold My Life," "Kiss Me On The Bus," and "Swingin Party" for sure but "Bastards Of Young," "Left Of The Dial," "Little Mascara," and "Here Comes A Regular" even more so; that's 7 out of 11 tracks, or well over half the album - and is therefore an essential purchase for anyone with even a passing interest in the band.
Pleased To Meet Me (Sire ‘87) Rating: A
Booting guitarist Bob Stinson due to alcoholism and continuing as a trio, Paul Westerberg and co. still somehow managed to deliver one of their best albums yet. Although the raw brilliance of Stinson’s guitar is missed, Westerberg holds his own as the lead guitarist, and legendary Memphis producer Jim Dickinson provides the band with a strong, punchy sound and (I'm sure) plenty of ideas. As with all previous Replacements albums, this one is far from perfect, but its highs rise awfully high and the lows here aren't really low at all. "I.O.U." and "I Don't Know" are hard rocking minor highlights on which I especially like the reckless energy and ragged harmonies on the former and the odd sax interjections and “one foot in the door…” vocal hooks on the latter. "Valentine" chugs along pleasantly and features memorable lyrics (“If you were a pill, I’d take a handful at my will, And I’d knock you back with something sweet and strong”), while "Shooting Dirty Pool" is an intense, gritty rocker even if it’s hardly what I'd call a highlight. "Never Mind" is a brightly upbeat (musically speaking, anyway) winner, while "Red Red Wine" is an enjoyable shout along even if it’s also ultimately an also-ran. Which leaves us with five songs that are absolute classics, at least to me they are, beginning with the unabashedly poppy, undeniably catchy Big Star homage "Alex Chilton," which is easily among their best songs ever. "Nightclub Jitters" is an atypical track that's perfect for closing time, being a laid back, jazzy little cocktail lounge ditty (dig that sultry sax) that's in stark contrast to the harrowing suicide tale "The Ledge," a dangerously dark and exciting rocker. The song maintains its intense, menacing mood throughout, and though Westerberg's streamlined guitar solo is a far cry from what Stinson would've done, it's extremely effective nevertheless. Scaling things back, "Skyway" is simply a gorgeously unadorned acoustic ballad whose lone fault is that it’s too short, while "Can't Hardly Wait" is arguably the band's catchiest song ever. In addition, its punchy horns provide a good example of their increased use of r&b elements on this album (no doubt due to Dickinson), and it's exactly the kind of song that makes me wonder how in the world this band managed to escape pop stardom.
Don’t Tell A Soul (Sire ’89) Rating: B
Perhaps it was the many years spent boozing it up. Or maybe it was releasing some of the ‘80s best albums to commercial indifference despite being ecstatically received by critics. Whatever the case, on Don’t Tell A Soul the band sounds tired and tame, though the album’s assets do become apparent over time, making it something of a "sleeper" album in the 'Mats catalogue. Sure, they sound somewhat nondescript (they could pass for any number of generic mainstream bands), but remember, above all else this band was always about Paul Westerberg's songs, and some of these songs are very good. With jangly, easy going guitars and airy harmonies as their primary asset, songs such as "Talent Show," "Back To Back," "We'll Inherit The Earth," "They're Blind," and "I'll Be You" are instantly attractive, while "Achin' To Be" is exactly the type of affecting ballad that should by all rights land these guys in the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame. Of course, I'm not holding my breath, and I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that (way back when) most fans found these slower, mellower Replacements to be a major disappointment after Let It Be, Tim, and Pleased To Meet Me. Some blamed the glossy production, but the truth is that Westerberg and new guitarist Slim Dunlap simply don’t let loose, as Westerberg’s primarily acoustic-based compositions succeed or fail solely based on his still-formidable popcraft. Alas, fine though almost all of these songs are, clearly this has become a job at this point (“the demands made upon you are hard to live up to, it’s futile to try to deny, and the things you hold dearly are scoffed at and yearly judged once and then left aside”), as the weight of expectations and the passage of youth have taken their toll on this once great rock n’ roll band, with Westerberg himself declaring “I look into the mirror and I see a rock n’ roll ghost.” Still, Don’t Tell A Soul was his most lyrically mature and personal album statement to date, and it has weathered time well, ultimately standing as a middle-of-the-pack 'Mats album but a good one at that.
All Shook Down (Sire ’90) Rating: B+
Though the band's fourth best original album is less slick than Don’t Tell A Soul, it likewise is a far cry from their raucous early days, as The Replacements have seemingly settled into being a generic but still quite good "adult" oriented pop rock band. "Bent Out Of Shape" and "My Little Problem" (the latter a duet with Concrete Blonde's Johnette Napolitano) rock hard enough, but acoustic guitars and airy melodies are the general rule, as the band again elects to show off their mellower, softer side. Actually, this is a Replacements album in name only, since the contributions of the other band members were minimal and 11 session musicians are credited. Though Westerberg was coerced by his record label into releasing this as a band effort, the impending breakup was inevitable, as Westerberg himself noted: “this one’s your last chance, to make this last one really the last.” Fortunately, Westerberg retains his incisive lyrical touch throughout, and lines like “the plan was to sweep the world off its feet,” “we’re standing in the shadows, forever on the brink,” and “one of the year’s best ‘aint saying much” are Paul’s cynically autobiographical tales about his band’s rock n’ roll experiences as "next big things" who never made it big. These lines and plenty of others (“yeah you’re still in love with nobody, and I used to be nobody”) prove that 'ol man Westerberg still has something to say, and once again his consistently well-crafted (if never quite classic, aside from the absolutely gorgeous “Sadly Beautiful”) melodies provide him with effective forums from which to speak his mind.
All For Nothing/Nothing For All (Sire ’97) Rating: A-
All For Nothing, the first cd of the new Replacements collection, All For Nothing/Nothing For All, is a “best of” their major label years on Sire Records, encompassing Tim, Pleased To Meet Me, Don’t Tell A Soul, and All Shook Down. Unfortunately, despite not being equal, each album is given equal weight, with four songs apiece. Though the choices from each album are solid, there's room for quibbling (certainly "When It Began" is a better song than "Someone Take The Wheel," for example), as usual, and I personally would rather listen to those albums straight through rather than listen to perceived high points from them (this is certainly true in the case of Tim and Pleased To Meet Me). As such, I'd argue that the main reason to splurge for this two cd set is the album’s second disc. Nothing For All, a more playful gathering of unreleased rarities, b-sides, and alternate takes, should fulfill both completists and fans alike who have long been hungry for new material. Though some of these 17 songs are forgettable, most are worthy of your attention, and even throwaways like the stomping “Beer For Breakfast” and “Wake Up” boast an unpretentious energy that their later albums lacked. The '50s-sounding sing along rock n’ roll of “Jungle Rock,” the catchy show tune “Cruella DeVille,” and Chris Mars’ “All He Wants To Do Is Fish” are fun experiments unlike anything else in the ‘Mats catalogue, as is their memorably amateurish yet poignant, made-up-on-the-spot take on Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” (retitled “Like A Rolling Pin”). Tommy Stinson even provides a rare songwriting credit on the excellent pop of “Satellite,” while “We Know The Night” and “Portland” are simple but rich acoustic songs that would’ve sounded great on any of their original albums. Finally, a raw, horn free alternate version of “Can’t Hardly Wait” and a completely unadorned rendition of “All Shook Down” are other treats. It was a pleasure discovering these hidden nuggets, as well as reading the hugely entertaining booklet, where fans and associates lend their two cents about what made this band great, including priceless anecdotes about their legendary partying sprees and stage antics. This belated tribute proves that it wasn’t All For Nothing, and that at their best the band offered something for all.
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