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Welcome to my blog, where I’ll ramble on about some of my favorite things; an unsung rock band, a defunct pro wrestling promotion, or anything else that comes to mind. Enjoy!
EXILE ON FIRST AVENUE
Revisiting The Replacements' Big Step Forward
BILL WOOD | NOVEMBER 3, 2023
For those of us who were there back in the day, the Replacements were and always will be very special. The recent reissue of Tim: Let It Bleed Edition brought back a tidal wave of wonderful memories about the band, their conflicted history, and most importantly their timeless music catalog, so much that I recently purchased the reissue of 1989’s Don’t Tell A Soul, which was repackaged and reissued in 2019 as Dead Man’s Pop. It’s never too late to turn back, so here we go.
Before we get started: One common narrative I see attached to DTAS is that it was an overtly commercial album that alienated longtime devotees, a.k.a. “the sellout record.” Which is kinda silly when you think about it. For starters, yes they changed their sound drastically, but it’s not like they went hair-metal or decided to become R.E.M. Second, if the band really wanted to jump on a bandwagon, commercially-successful alt-rock of the era (Faith No More, Jane's Addiction, etc.) was trending hard and loud, not soft and quiet. And finally, none of my Mats-loving friends (admittedly there weren’t many) were moshing to Sorry Ma while waiting for the Replacements to reinstate Bob and revisit their hardcore days. Everyone who followed the band’s career trajectory to this point was well aware of Paul Westerberg’s considerable talents as a songwriter, we knew it was this talent that made the band special and that it was only a matter of time before he fully unleashed his inner Burt Bacharach upon the world. Hell, we were rooting for the guy.
And on the ironically-titled Don’t Tell A Soul, unleash he did. From the opening verse, Westerberg and bandmates declared that they were finally—if reluctantly—ready to step into the spotlight and deliver to their potential. Gone was the punk-rawk squall that kept the band tethered to its college radio roots, in its place a calmer, more calculated set of countrified swingers and tender ballads. If you’ve read Bob Mehr’s brilliant Replacements biography Trouble Boys, you’ll know that the band was anything but professional behind the scenes, even in their mellower years. But unlike earlier offerings that played up the band’s notoriety (there are way too many examples to list here), the band’s “one foot in the gutter” credo was largely left behind with this latest LP. In a career full of quantum leaps, DTAS represented the Mats’ most ambitious jump yet.
From the semi-autobiographical “Talent Show” to the MPLS swing of “Asking Me Lies,” the majority of songs on DTAS are surefire Westerberg classics. The problem is that the original version’s thin sound and muddy mix does these songs a disservice, especially when listening in the modern era where quality sound fidelity is not only easily achieved but expected. The record originally came slathered in a gaudy coat of ‘80s production polish that was prerequisite for major label artists at the time; not that this polish made for a better listening experience or truly elevated the Replacements to the next level. Sure the album ended up becoming their biggest seller by a slim margin (while at the same time falling well short of label expectations), but that was mainly on the strength of their mini-hit “I’ll Be You.” Take that video out of MTV rotation and it’s difficult to say where DTAS lands sales-wise.
In any case, Dead Man’s Pop goes back to the mixing board to revisit the album and its supplemental material from a renewed perspective, and the results are a real eye-opener. Even more than Tim: Let It Bleed Edition (still my favorite Mats LP), DMP exceeds my expectation of what is possible with a modern album reissue. Previously discarded backing tracks are unearthed like buried gold, indecipherable vocals are clear as day, guitars sound like individual instruments (it turns out Slim plays on this record!), drums like drums. Even the track order has been revised to give the album a more consistent flow. Peeling back the sheen to reveal its earthy roots, DMP is essentially the same record it’s always been, while at the same time closer to Exile-era Stones than it’s ever been.
That isn’t to say DMP instantly becomes flawless, far from it. “We’ll Inherit The Earth” and “Back To Back” are still piss-poor U2 castoffs in my ever-aging opinion, and there’s no defending the AOR blandness of “Anywhere’s Better Than Here.” But even with the sub-par numbers included, this is arguably the best batch of material that Paul Westerberg ever committed to a single album, a veritable master class in pop music artisanship. Now it features a quality mix to boot.
Listening for the first time way back in ’89, “Achin’ To Be” and “Darlin’ One” stood out as the gems you always knew the Mats were capable of delivering. Of course these songs sound better than ever here, even if the backwards guitar loop on the latter is slightly jarring. But for me, DMP’s true centerpiece is “They’re Blind.” Already one of the most breathtakingly gorgeous Westerberg songs ever committed to tape, the slower pace and remixed instrumentation give the song an even dreamier atmosphere. This version is now in my personal Top Five Mats songs, no small feat since the other four are on Tim.
On DTAS, “Rock n’ Roll Ghost” was a seemingly innocuous ballad tucked away on the album’s second side, a lesser version of “Skyway” or “Here Comes A Regular.” Three decades later, as the closing track on DMP, the song now hauntingly foreshadows the band’s impending struggles and eventual demise. Within two years, the Replacements would disband and Paul Westerberg would be back in Minneapolis living with his parents, planning his solo debut while watching the sound he helped create in the ‘80s soar past him in the ‘90s. Isolated in the dark corner of a recording studio, Westerberg shivers out the album’s closing line, “I look into the mirror and I see a rock n’ roll ghost.”
So what else does DMP have going for it? Well, plenty of the now-mandatory demos, outtakes and extras, including a full concert from the DTAS tour. I saw the Mats at the Hollywood Palladium on this tour, it was bizarre watching kids stage dive to the newer material but the band sounded pretty much like they do here, which is to say raw and ornery. The Bearsville demos are also included, which may prove interesting to fans as a historical curiosity (and if you weren't a DTAS fan back in the day, here's proof that it might have been even worse). Aside from "Portland" and "Wake Up,'" the results are fairly underwhelming, it’s mainly a numbed-up collection of half-finished ideas. Finally, the booze-soaked session with another of my favorite artists, Tom Waits, was probably never intended for human ears and is barely worth a listen, save for the catchy “Date To Church.”
We all know how the story ends. With DTAS, the Replacements did not end up inheriting the earth, instead they made it safe for a flood of super-successful "sensitive-guy" alt-rock outfits that followed in their wake; Dishwalla, the Gin Blossoms, the Goo Goo Dolls... I could keep going. It's a cruel tag to hang upon the band, a bit like blaming the New York Dolls for inventing Mötley Crüe. But this is what happens when hit you the brakes before the rest of the world can catch up.
Pleased To Meet Me—the 1987 Mats’ LP that is bookended by Tim (1985) and Don’t Tell A Soul (1989)—has received a similar reissue treatment which I plan on picking up soon. Recorded in Memphis by legendary producer Jim Dickinson, that album doesn’t suffer from the production woes that plagued the other two LPs. Nonetheless, it’s refreshing to experience these essential records in an entirely new light. Along with 1984’s Let It Be, the Replacements' epic four-album run puts forth evidence that they were one of the best—if not the very best—rock bands of their era, even when they were trying to convince the world otherwise. - BW