The dynamic that fueled the Replacements’ success can be gleaned from the fate of the original members. One is a journeyman songwriter, one has left music, one of them is in Guns ‘n’ Roses, and one is dead from drinking. They were reckless and natural. Of the iconic ‘80s bands profiled in Our Band Could Be Your Life, the Replacements were the most musically conservative. Even their thrashiest album has blues licks and bar-band moves. But they were the only flirts in the bunch, the only ones creating straight-up love songs. Even the Minutemen, who were equally down to earth, used artsy brevity to hide their roots as teenage Blue Oyster Cult fanatics. The Replacements never felt the need put up a cool front. As musical omnivores, bits of country and metal and mainstream pop were always surfacing in their music, and not as knowing references; often, it was the corniest bits. An official bootleg they slipped out on cassette in 1985 (The Shit Hits the Fans) finds them stumbling through Bachman Turner Overdrive, the Carter Family, Tom Petty and the Jackson 5. The tracklist is entertaining, the performance less so. They were too drunk to finish any of the songs, and it’s mostly a jumble of stray verses.
When Dusted reviewed the remastering of the Replacements independent releases earlier this year, Mike Lupica avoided reading the liner notes, lest his impressions get muffled by the "mushy reminiscence that is so commonly utilized in discussions of this band." And he had a point: a novice approaching any of their albums could easily form the impression that the Replacements were wildly inconsistent. But tell that to a fan, and it’s likely they’ll recount tales of the band cross-dressing and swinging from chandeliers, and that the inconsistency was an important part of their thang.
While the early Twin/Tone songs about boners and goddam-jobs sound endearing regardless of the nostalgic anecdotes, the four major-label releases reissued in September on Rhino have something to disappoint everyone – intrusive production, cloying commercialism, rave-ups that never get it up. The liner notes (from guys who worked closely with the band at the time) help explain the missteps, even as they overrate and apologize in all the wrong places.
What happened to this band? Tim and Pleased to Meet Me are strong records – from certain angles, their best records – but neither is the romp of Let It Be. Don’t Tell a Soul and All Shook Down, meanwhile, have been regular occupants in 99-cent bins across the country. When Let it Be broke through in 1984, there was critical astonishment that a lyric as sophisticated as "Androgynous" could have emerged from a crew that acted like they’d just snorted meth in the wood-paneled basement of a Minneapolis split level. On these later albums, Westerberg’s songwriting increasingly sounds like he’s trying to impress his bosses more than his bandmates, like he’s trying to live up to the exaggerated claims he put on his resume.
The key track here is "Kiss Me on the Bus.” The version that appeared on Tim is sweet without being slack. Clean tones surround Westerberg’s pleading, building to a sparkle when the hook comes in. It’s the model for his later radio hits – "I’ll Be You,” "Merry Go Round" and the solo number "Dyslexic Heart." The reissue adds a version that couldn’t be more different. Bob Stinson’s guitar howls through the whole thing, filling in every gap in Westerberg’s singing. Fighting through the distortion, lines like "Your tongue / your transfer / your hand / your answer" take on a new meaning. It’s horny. It’s as exciting as anything on the indie releases, tougher than anything on the Sire ones. It’s not that the official take is bad – the easygoing approach suits the scratchy nuances of Westerberg’s singing, but it doesn’t suit the chemistry of the band. It’s not apparent that the Tim sessions are where the lusty splendor of the New York Dolls were neutered into the Pontiac Sunbird balladry of the Goo Goo Dolls. And Tommy Ramone was right there in the production booth, an integral part of the gelding. ‘70s punk goes in one end, ‘90s alternative comes out the other.
When Tim and Pleased to Meet Me missed their financial targets, the pressure wrecked the band’s rapport. Bob Stinson was kicked out before Pleased, and Don’t Tell a Soul fittingly sounds like the work of music industry employees. "We’ll Inherit the Earth" comes off like a mandate to create an atmospheric anthem like "The One I Love" or "Where the Streets have No Name.” It opens with whirring synths and power chords. Layers of acoustic guitars and digitally precise drums emerge. Westerberg tries his hardest to sound like a spokesman for a generation, and it’s uncomfortable to witness. It’s gets worse when they throw in some rumbling piano notes and a voice spliced into the foreground whispers "don’t tell a soul." Just like those "zoom zoom" car commercials.
All Shook Down doesn’t have as many blunders, but it bears the hallmarks of a solo debut that was intended at the outset. The songcraft is strong and the backing lacks character. Guest stars like John Cale, Steve Berlin from Los Lobos come in for the overdubs. There aren’t many musical hooks to get in the way of the singing. When Westerberg does remember to include a riff, like the bubbling southern rock scale on "Attitude,” the songs come alive. When he decides to duet with Johnette Napolitano for a token hard-rock number, it’s more like b-listers pitching a track to John Mellencamp and Sheryl Crow.
Rhino was shrewd with these reissues. They salt the last two albums with bonus tracks showing that late-career Replacements still had a spark – they just weren’t sharing it. Soul gets a great country and western number, and a cowpunker that’s a final foray into hardcore tempos. There’s also a late-night jam session with Tom Waits, "Date to Church." The gospel handclaps and Hammond organ are plenty fun, and the conceit is Westerberg at his best, coming on to his date with good, if disingenuous intentions. There’s also "Kissing in Action,” a pop metal reminder that the Replacements also had the biggest hair of the Our Band Could Be Your Life peers. String some of these bits from the vault with the best pop numbers on the official releases, and you’d end up with an album that’s as excitingly discombobulated as the Replacements at their peak.
By Ben Donnelly