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The Replacements - Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash / Stink / Hootenanny / Let It Be

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Artist: The Replacements

Album: Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash / Stink / Hootenanny / Let It Be

Label: Rhino

Review date: Apr. 23, 2008

In 2008, the most compelling non-musical element of the Replacements is appreciating how uniquely American they were. It’s nearly impossible to imagine them coming from any of the world’s other hotbeds of rugged musical sounds like Sweden or Australia, let alone the U.K. Unlike a lot of revered and iconic bands from other places and eras, the Replacements had no ties to anything larger than themselves – no art scene impresarios footing the bills (Sex Pistols), no crazy political movement in the undercurrent (MC5). Even the Ramones had the advantage of being in New York, where in the ’70s and ’80s there was the hope that Warhol or someone with similar validation from the outside world might take notice of you. But no such luck for Paul Westerberg, Christopher Mars and the mighty brothers Stinson, who comprised the Replacements between 1981 and ’85. Their kind of art gave a voice to the decidedly unspectacular people and places of the country, and made those who lived there feel like perhaps they’d been short-changing themselves in terms of their own cultural relevance. After all, in the New York and L.A. focused mindset of that era, there wasn’t much cause to think that great bands came charging out of Minnesota. (All due respect to His Purple Badness.)

Each of these CDs are much-deserved reissues of the Replacements first four albums, originally released on the Minneapolis-based Twin Tone record label. Each disc is thoughtfully augmented with a slew of bonus tracks that correspond with the years in which the records were originally issued, totaling 30 previously unheard demos and outtakes spread across the four CDs. I’ve purposely avoided reading any of the liner notes in an effort to steer the discussion away from the language of mushy reminiscence that is so commonly utilized in discussions of this band. Granted, whenever one writes about the art that mattered to them during a vulnerable time in their life, they risk revealing an aesthetic that’s tarnished by the ugly specter of nostalgia and revisionism. It’s a dangerous abyss for anyone to court, but no matter who you talk to or what age they may be, the Replacements tend to be a launchpad by which to share raucous anecdotes from the summer after high school up through and including the first three years of college. Incidentally, those are often the same years in which music critics from every generation forge the sonic preferences that they lean heavily upon throughout their careers.

Just sayin’.

Another problem with talking about the Replacements these days is the indisputable fact that their music and lyrics have been analyzed so extensively, one can’t help but wonder if any good can come of hashing it all out again. In the cultural hindsight of the 21st century, they’ve been called Pre-Indie Rock, Pre-Grunge, Punk, Post-Punk, college rock, the best and worst live band in the universe, not as good as Husker Du and, perhaps most spectacularly, sellouts. These days, the real wonder of the matter is appreciating how unlikely it is for any of those terms to have wound up referencing a band whose first two records sound suspiciously like Chuck Berry on a massive coke bender.

Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash and the subsequent Stink EP announced the young Minneapolis band’s arrival with an exhilarating blast of two-minute punk songs which brashly romanticized… well… “goin’ real fast, and hangin’ out the windows” (as vocally hurled in Sorry Ma’s lead track, “Takin’ a Ride”). Both were brilliantly simple records that channeled all the splendors of a reckless Friday night (and Saturday, and Sunday, and the subsequent Monday and Tuesday…) into a blur of snot-brained 4/4isms that were perfectly suited to the gravelly insistence of young Paul Westerberg’s vocals. Although the drunken exploits of trouble making, unemployed (or unemployable) teenagers with a predilection for engine-gunning tempos might not seem like such an innovative criteria, their presentation of this classic American paradigm made fantastic sense and was instantly validated by the release of these records in 1981 and ’82, respectively.

Although traditional rock and roll chord progressions could be heard on both releases, they also bore a curious resemblance to another musical style that had been not-so-quietly brooding elsewhere in the underground: hardcore. No slur on Westerberg’s amazing songwriting abilities (at 200 mph or otherwise), but it may have been Bob Stinson’s guitar playing that rescued Sorry Ma… and Stink from being lost in the deluge of pissed-off-white-guy records hitting the “import” bins of some record stores at around the same time. The amazing complexities that Stinson wrung out of his guitar’s neck set their music miles away from the pack of even the most musically accomplished thrash bands – Husker Du included – and made hardcore sound like a twisted derivation of black blues. (Hilariously, at around the same time, Stinson famously professed an incongruous adoration for the playing of Steve Howe from Yes.)

In 1983 and ’84, with the band’s emerging status strengthened by the concurrent shift away from prog rock on American college radio, the Replacements released their final two independent albums: Hootenanny and Let It Be. The former is forever cursed as a scattered effort with only two really good songs to redeem it, and the latter will eternally brandish its status as one of the most universally loved, culture-shifting, and emotionally devastating benchmarks in rock music. That these records were recorded within mere months of one another remains a baffling reality, which in later years moved me to consider the existence of ghosts, space aliens and time machines.

Otherworldly intervention or not, finding generous words for Hootenanny hasn’t gotten any easier over the years. It has the curious distinction of being nobody’s favorite Replacements record, in spite of boasting a pair of tracks that eventually came to be regarded as signature songs for the band (the jangly and cascading “Color Me Impressed” and the painfully awkward beta-male anthem “Within Your Reach”). Both tracks work as exemplary standalone cuts, and would be shoo-ins for anybody’s version of a Replacements greatest hits disc. Weirdly, though, in spite of the filler, the album never earned the kind of bile that the group’s fans would reveal later on as the Replacements wandered into a trepidatious relationship with the mainstream. Perhaps college radio DJs who prided themselves on mining deep cuts from independently released records were content to obsessively spin its standout songs, regardless of how unremarkable it sounded as a complete work. But as part of the band’s eventual eight-album catalog, Hootenanny has always just sort of languished as a tolerated stepping stone on the way to something far more enduring.

Let It Be is a record whose iconic status has grown immeasurably over the years. Although not initially received much differently than any of the Replacements’ previous records, it is today credited as having been a catalyst for a collective realization of the American underground. Through no fault or intention of the band, it galvanized a scene and helped establish the idea of an independent rock ‘canon’ to be referred back upon in the ensuing years. (Counterproductively, some would argue. Myself included.) The album was a quantum leap forward for a band who’d not much earlier been writing race-you-to-the-other-side numbers like “More Cigarettes” and “Fuck School,” and in a flash, the Replacements went from scrappy punks to crazily accomplished musicians who provided an incomparable foundation for Westerberg’s increasingly poignant lyrics. And they did it all with a presentation of themselves that was downright ordinary, especially in the era in which bar-band hokum was being regularly exalted to rock god status by MTV. What was probably born of the Replacement’s indifference towards success fostered a sense among fans that they possessed a direct link to the only group that walked just like they did, talked just like they did, and in a spectacularly subtle act of defiance, sat on the roof together just like they did. (The album’s cover featured the group’s members perched astride the second floor fire escape of the Stinson family residence.)

Suddenly, the excitement surrounding them crested into the kind of cultural watershed moment in which the believers practically seemed to cry out: “Yes! Yes! This is what I’ve been thinking and wanting and feeling for so long and no one’s been able to express it.” As a result of that fervent devotion, Let It Be is one of independent rock’s most enduring and well-documented examples of fans adopting someone else’s art to speak on their own behalf. (In high school, I was one of the many who topped their mixtapes with the song “Unsatisfied.”)

On a strictly historical level, Let It Be might best be remembered as a bridge between the aloofness of R.E.M. and the scrappy gusto of a million bands in the American underground who never got to enjoy success beyond quick tours of all the towns that could be driven to over a long weekend. Some of those bands definitely mined similar territories, but none of them approached the level of stirring recognizance and allegiance that the Replacements seemed to muster without even trying. These reissues may not teach us anything new about the mechanics of the band, but considered in a more intimate light, they’re quite likely to remind a lot of us when and why we started believing that someday, even the 1980s would be a long time ago.

By Mike Lupica

Other Reviews of The Replacements

Tim / Pleased to Meet Me / Don’t Tell a Soul / All Shook Down

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