Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The history of rock: The Replacements 1981-1984

PhotobucketLots of people think of '80s rock and they think hair metal, Boy George and that moonwalking guy. But the '80s also brought us a band that endures, the rangy junkyard mutts of the Replacements, a scrappy bunch of Minneapolis yokels who turned from aspiring punk rockers into crafters of some of the most perfect yearning pop songs you'll ever hear. They summed up rock 'n' roll's essence – one minute mean as a feral cat, the next capable of a moment of dizzying emotional clarity that grabs you right in the spleen and doesn't let go. And as the years pass, the Replacements' brief spin through rock history just looks better and better.

The Replacements' first four albums – Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash, Stink, Hootenanny and Let It Be – are the subject of a sprawling new reissue program from Rhino Records. They've been re-released before, of course, but these comprehensive sets, overseen by longtime Replacements manager and producer Peter Jesperson, are a must-have. Over these four discs you see "the Mats," as fans know them, rise from young bratty punks to gifted rock prodigies – the learning curve is astounding.

A lot of times I find ballyhooed "remasterings" seem to just make the music louder rather than better. But Rhino's excellent job here wipes off several layers of murk on the old original issue CDs I have – stripping the Mats back to their garage-band essentials. You can practically hear the sweat flying off their hair and beer bottles clinking, and there's a spacious feeling to the music now. I came away with new respect for the late Bob Stinson's fiery lead guitar. Each disc comes with lengthy essays in the liner notes. Oh, and did I mention the plentiful extra tracks – 27 spread across the four discs. The new tracks run from rickety demos recorded alone by frontman Paul Westerberg to undiscovered gems.

PhotobucketStart with debut Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash, in its original 1981 release 18 tracks of high-speed would-be hardcore, a sloppy and cheeky combination of punk and pop that felt like it drew equal inspiration from the Sex Pistols and Cheap Trick. It's all tremendously fun and cartoony anti-authoritarian rock with titles like "I Hate Music," "Shutup," "Careless" and the first great song by the band, "Shiftless When Idle." While it's raw and ragged compared to the band's later work, it all still holds up a lot better than other nearly 30-year-old first albums.

Sorry Ma also gets the wealth of bonus material in the reissues – 13 new tracks, including the extremely crude but spunky first demos the band used to get a record deal. After all the thrashing, hearing Westerberg alone on the country-fried B-side "If Only You Were Lonely" is a lovely evocation of his often underrated later solo work. There's even a rambling rehearsal "Basement Jam" that puts you right there in the dirty cellar, missed cues, made-up lyrics and more. Geez, the Replacements were young – bassist Tommy Stinson was all of 12 years old when the band formed – and cruising through their first four albums is like watching the difference in someone between their freshman and senior year of high school.

PhotobucketThe Replacements' second disc was the EP Stink (as in, "The Replacements..."), a mere 8 tracks over less than 20 minutes that continued the quasi-hardcore slacker zeitgeist with more tunes like "God Damn Job" and "White And Lazy." By now, though, you're starting to see the wink in these speedy songs, and some real talent lurking behind all that teenage angst. Toward the end of Stink you get hints the angry-young-turk thing is running its course. It's a real shock to find the album winding up with the polished gem "Go," which has all the yearning power of the Mats at their best. A handful of extra tracks added to the new Stink include shambling covers of "Rock Around The Clock" and "Hey, Good Looking." Motley fun, and they make me wish that some of the legendary Replacements live bootlegs of the era might sometime get an official release. In their shambling and obnoxious drunkenness, the band could often be the best and worst band in the world on the very same night.

PhotobucketHootenanny is where the Replacements explode. Astoundingly, it was only their second full-length album, but it's miles ahead of Sorry Ma. "They were clearly bursting at the seams with ideas and inspiration," writes PD Larson in Hootenanny's new liner notes. "Seemingly nothing was too crazy to try once." If you want to pinpoint the moment when The Mats went from good rockers to perfect pop tunesmiths, it's about halfway through Hootenanny and the sublime "Within your Reach." Westerberg puts together all the pieces he's been slowly assembling and creates a song that speaks to anyone and everyone. There's no joking here, only a nervous skittering drum machine beat and stinging guitar soaring through the tune like a lost airplane. Hootenanny is filled with marvelous little moments, such as in the snide and resigned "Color Me Impressed" when Westerberg sighs, "Everybody at your party / they don't look depressed." Several outtake bonus tracks include the rowdy sketches of "Junior's Got A Gun" and "Ain't No Crime", with the band working out their power trash fetish.

PhotobucketAnd then came 1984's Let It Be. Naming your third album after the Beatles' swan song takes either artistic confidence or sheer screw 'em guts. The Mats had both by this stage, coming up with a tremendous disc that's regularly called one of the best of the 1980s. There's sheer gold on this album track after track – "I Will Dare," "Sixteen Blue," "Androgynous." The band hasn't given up their bratty, loud side – witness "Gary's Got A Boner" or Kiss cover "Black Diamond" – but clearly Westerberg is looking toward loftier goals than being a soundtrack for beer bashes.

In their final albums, the Replacements would sink a little too much into sentiment – especially after hard-partying Bob Stinson was kicked out of the band – but on Let It Be, they find a perfect balance between rock and heart. "Unsatisfied" is perhaps the Replacements' best moment to date, an every-man anthem response to Mick Jagger's "Satisfaction." "Look me in the eye and tell me / that I'm satisfied," Westerberg wails over a track that builds in momentum to a heartbreaking climax. It's hard to believe this is the same band that was singing "I hate music / it's got too many notes" just a couple years before. Bonus tracks added to Let It Be include excellent outtakes "Perfectly Lethal" and "Temptation Eyes," which wouldn't be out of place at all on the album itself, plus a fun cover of T. Rex's "20th Century Boy."

In their lifetime the Replacements were critics' darlings and a lifeline for a small, dedicated fan base. By the time word was getting out about them, they broke up in 1991. Rhino's dazzling restoration and expansion of their first four discs – and the second set coming this fall – make a valiant case for them possibly being the best band the '80s ever spawned. If you've never heard the Replacements before, it's never too late to start.

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