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The Replacements - Don't You Know Who I think I Was?: The Best of THe Replacements Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 August 2006
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    9
sound:    7
release year:    2006
label:    Rhino
reviewed by:    Dan MacIntosh

ImageCareer retrospective CDs issued after a band has disbanded are like crumpled party invitations pulled from the mailbox a day late; scattered empties and chip dip residue offer the only remaining evidence of good times. Even so, the Replacements, formerly one hard-partying Minnesota rock band, left a magnificent mess in its wake, which I guess is analogous to leaving a beautiful corpse.

Appropriately, this Twin Cities group was itself a tale of split personality, drunken fools one night and stone cold sober geniuses the next, with little in between. Poor Joe Fan never knew which of two versions would show up on any given night – determined by their alcohol consumption, natural jitter levels and that intangible performance enthusiasm. He just had his ticket in hand and his high hopes.

My introduction to the Replacements live took place at the Palace in Hollywood in the mid-‘80s, right after the band released Tim, its major label debut on Warner Bros. The young group responded to a roomful of label suits with obvious inordinately-prodigious alcohol consumption and the nervousness of amateur tightrope walkers thrust under the Big Top for the first time. Subsequently, each of these two bullying elements (the booze and the butterflies) conspired to completely subdue all remaining enthusiasm. What ensued was an embarrassing spectacle, which found the band starting then aborting a series of cover songs they didn’t know or couldn’t finish, along with half-hearted performances of their own songs. Their reaction to their first big career challenge? – self-sabotage.

Thanks to a measure of amazing grace, I also experienced the Replacements as a great rock band rather than great fuck-ups. This gig was in Long Beach, just down the freeway but far-removed from industry-rich Hollywood, and if lead singer/primary songwriter Paul Westerberg was sauced that night, he at least held his liquor well. When Westerberg is on his “A” game, as he most certainly was this time out, he’s the rock and roll equivalent of Henry Fonda giving that heartfelt speech at the end of “The Grapes of Wrath” – the guardian for everyone who’s ever been depressed or heartbroken (and that group includes everyone, wouldn’t you say?).
Whether sober or not, a side of Westerberg has always itched to play the modern-day, partying pied piper, a la Steve Marriott during his Humble Pie days. Thus, the Replacements’ catalogue is littered with throwaway boogie guitar rockers like “Shooting Dirty Pool” and “Dose of Thunder” (both, thankfully, excluded here). And speaking of throwaways, this “best of” set includes two new tracks, “Message to the Boys” and “Pool & Dive,” each recently recorded by a reunited Replacements. Both songs bring out the punk rather than the poet in Westerberg. They’re double dosages of thunder, it’s true, but they’re also relatively toothless in the smarts department. Were it not for these two fresh tunes, you might never know Westerberg had an inner Marriott at all. That’s because this particular disc is all soul-searching, all the time. This CD showcases Westerberg’s lyrical genius, instead of his rock star pose.

The Replacements will most likely go down in rock and roll history as literate Paul Westerberg’s band. Most listeners will never know the names of his band mates, a perspective comparable to the ‘90s Chicago Bulls which, recognition of Scottie Pippen by NBA fans aside, are forever remembered as Michael Jordan and “his supporting cast.” But this band deserves a little more credit for its musical accomplishments. Sure, it began as a sloppy punk band, exemplified by “Takin’ a Ride” at the beginning of this disc. But by the time it was creating gentle country odes like “Achin’ To Be” during its twilight years, the Replacements had evolved into a precursor Americana outfit of the first order. In fact, it’s not hard to imagine George Jones crying in his beer over “Here Comes a Regular” – which ought to be the barfly national anthem. “We’ll Inherit the Earth,” a track shamefully excluded from this set, is a big and bold sonic masterpiece which shows off how this group could match skills with even the best of its contemporary rock studio rats.

The Replacements’ greatest recorded moment, 1984’s Let It Be album, arrived just prior to its Warner Bros. signing. Although three Twin/Tone indie classics from it are included on this collection, Replacements newbies are strongly advised to begin their band exploration with the complete Let It Be, start to finish a jewel. The album is nothing if not an exposed emotional wound. On “Unsatisified,” you’re nearly certain Westerberg tore up his left lung singing it, and “Answering Machine” pounds like an angry fist against limitations of then-modern technology. Westerberg was obviously wise beyond his years when he cried, “Try and free a slave of ignorance/Try and teach a whore about romance.” Lastly, the shuffling “I Will Dare” revealed the Replacements’ lighter side, exemplary due to Peter Buck’s production and sprightly stringed instrumentation.

Westerberg’s familiar emotional downward spirals made his takes on love and romance as dark and harrowing as a Freudian psychoanalytic session from hell. But when he was feeling up, which was rare, he could sound almost childlike. That’s the only way to describe the sexual anticipation expressed through “Kiss Me on the Bus” and “Can’t Hardly Wait”; the former features a perfect bubblegum rock jangle while the latter gets down and dirty, aided by sweaty Southern horns.

These 20 songs chart Westerberg’s innate lyrical talent, from the pure natural prowess revealed by the early “Answering Machine” to his budding expressive maturity toward the end of the group’s lifespan. He may have been helplessly self-centered when he wrote “Color Me Impressed” in ‘83, but “Here Comes a Regular” (from 1985’s Tim) shows off a highly- trained observational eye. Similarly, “Achin’ To Be,” from 1989’s Don’t Tell a Soul, the group’s last hurrah, is a smart character study about a complicated woman (one Westerberg finds irresistible), which reveals how he was learning to look outside himself for inspiration.

The Replacements’ music is mostly timeless, although a few of these tracks will take you straight back to the ‘80s – whether or not you and your bad fashion memories really want to go is another matter. “Left of the Dial” is Westerberg’s ode to college radio, the first medium to give the Replacements (and many other acts like them) a break. With “Alex Chilton,” Westerberg praises the former Big Star leader who influenced and inspired countless other rock bands during the Replacements’ era.

It’s ironic that Westerberg wrote and recorded a song about Chilton, whose solo work will forever be compared to his achievements with Big Star, and pale in that comparison. Similarly, Westerberg’s solo recordings may never equal the impact of his work with the Replacements. His best work chronicled the troubling transition between childhood and adulthood; almost like a child star who has matured, with increased age he’s grown out of what we loved him for in the first place. A man of 40 can’t sincerely, credibly sing “Sixteen Blue.”

These days, bands wearing their hearts on their sleeves are a dime a dozen. There’s even a whole juvenile genre, the dreaded emo, populated by endlessly-blubbering inarticulate idiots. Westerberg never played the crybaby; he was the weeping Everyman. When he described his lost generation with “Bastards of Young,” everyone recognized in it somebody they knew – possibly themselves – stuck in a post-baby boom age group with “no war to name it.” Much modern rock makes you want to go all Mr. T, pitying the fools creating it. The Replacements still give you empathy for the tender heart behind the art.

The Replacements were, in the simplest of descriptions, Westerberg’s rasp of a voice placed over an at-best-functional rock band. Toward the end, his childhood pals were either replaced by studio musicians or Westerberg played many of the parts himself. But even during the group’s beginning stages, these players never showed signs of wanting to become “professional” musicians. In fact, much of the later friction in the band was caused by Westerberg’s artistic ambitions, which were often hindered by the rest of the group’s careless career attitude. Nevertheless, great – albeit sloppy – records were still made under these adverse conditions, so it may help to keep this band’s unique history in mind while revisiting these tracks.

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