Minneapolis in the 1980s must have been interesting. Yes, there was Prince, the massive superstar with a superego whom I have developed a hate-love-hate relationship. Then there were the rock bands that played on college radio. Soul Asylum, Hüsker Dü, The Jayhawks, Babes in Toyland, The Suburbs- basically 99% of Twin/Tone’s line-up- these bands are among my favourite bands of the 1980s. The king of them all, though are the ‘Mats.
It’s their major label début, produced by Tommy Ramone, a ramshackle experience, full of nuance both lyrically and musically. It is Paul Westerberg at his peak, shredding his vocal chords while the erstwhile Stinson brothers got along just enough to lay down some amazing guitar and bass work, possibly both drunk while they did ( hell, let’s just assume the entire band were pretty much blasted beginning to end). There is even vocal work from the king of power pop majesty himself, Alex Chilton, on “Left of the Dial”.
It’s a mess, but it’s a fun mess.
The Replacements could be wonderfully loopy and frightfully vicious all within the span of a few bars. On one song like “Waitress In the Sky”, Westerberg could sneer at the flight attendant who would chirpily ask him to put out his cigarettes over a bouncy country-rock beat. Or sing sweetly about drinking over a gentle acoustic guitar on “Here Comes A Regular”, a song that is essentially a love song about and to beer. The music is always all over the place, possibly more so here than on any ‘Mats record before or after. This was Bob Stinson’s last hurrah with the band. You know you have a serious drink problem when the rest of this band gets rid of you.
Listening to the bands evolution from beginning to end recently, I am impressed with the album on two levels. First, the move to a major meant more cash for recording, and the albums is definitely cleaner sounding than previous Let It Be, an album almost as great as this one. Second is with Westerberg’s lyrics, which keep opening up. He could still be an asshole, but as songs like “Here Comes a Regular” and the tribute to college radio “Left of the Dial” show, he is less guarded and more willing to express about what truly moves him. “Left of the Dial” is one of my all time favourite songs, a moment where I remember how when I was eleven it was impossible to find the best music on the radio unless you know exactly how to hit the college radio station with limited range. It was too close to the classical station on the dial- my Replacements sometimes morphed in Rachmaninoff. It’s not as odd a combo as you might think, but then again, it happened more than once. I now think of Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C# Minor” being the perfect companion to this album.
Of course, the centrepiece of this incredible record is the brutal generation gap classic “Bastards Of Young”, which attacks the baby boomer’s callousness to their own parents hard-working ethos and their children’s aimlessness. ” Unwillingness to claim us, got no war to name us”, he spits put before reminding them that when they die, we’ll “visit their graves on holidays at best”. The song ends with a guitar and drum freak out that shows the bands complete anarchic spirit.
Other songs, like the jazzy lope of “Swingin’ Party”, the squealing guitars of “Little Mascara”, the alt country vibe and Nick Lowe flavour of “Kiss Me On The Bus”, and bright melodies of “Hold My Life”. are part of a complete and magical listening experience. The band’s album may swing between guitar drenched rockers and sweet acoustic ballads, but it never feels schizophrenic.
I love the ‘Mats, but after Tim they sounded pretty lost without Bob. On songs like “Can’t Hardly Wait” and “Alex Chilton”, they almost sound like the band they were. Seeing how Westerberg’s solo career is hit and miss (mostly miss), Tommy Stinson ended up playing bass for Guns ‘N’ Roses at one point before going on tour with fellow Minneapolis holdovers Soul Asylum, and Chris Mars ended up a painter after a truncated solo career, it now feels like a brief moment where a sloppy, drunken band could shine brilliantly.
Bob Stinson has been gone for over fifteen years now. I still miss him thrashing around on record. Fortunately, I have Tim.