The new set of Replacements reissues, focusing on their four albums for Sire/Warner Brothers records (Tim, Pleased to Meet Me, Don’t Tell a Soul and All Shook Down), deal with the most controversial albums in the band’s catalogue – controversial in regards to their stock compared to the earlier albums, in recording quality, even in integrity. These albums are often seen as the Mats’ grab at the brass ring of success, an effort that ultimately tore the band asunder, and has elicited more than one derisive comment over the years for what is sometimes perceived as a conscious attempt to move units.
Though it seems almost a quaint discussion. Was the band’s integrity really called into question by signing with Seymour Stein and Sire Records? This is the same label that had signed the Ramones and Talking Heads, among many, many other impressive and artistically respected acts, and had helped those bands to flourish commercially and creatively. Off the top of my head, I struggle to think of a major label today that has that kind of credibility and track record. The sneers of ‘sell-out’ that used to be so common is a moot point from a time period where there actually were artistic and monetary rewards to be gained if you worked with the right, respectful people.
The new set of reissues again have the double draw of being both remastered and laden with bonus tracks, but here the remastering is less of a draw. While the albums certainly sound better in general, the remastering doesn’t have the huge impact that it had on the Twin/Tone albums. Nothing is going to help Tim, ever, and the other albums were well-enough recorded that the remastering glistens things up a bit, but doesn’t change the overall effect.
1985’s Tim, the last to feature the original lineup of Paul Westerberg, Chris Mars, Tommy and Bob Stinson, sets the prototype for what many point to as the band’s weak points in later years – off production (this complaint varies with the album) and lackluster filler songs. Tim is, for my money, easily the worst-recorded of the Mats’ albums. Tinny, thin and poorly mixed, if it wasn’t for a slate of nearly impossibly brilliant songs, the album would have been lost. But the only stumbles on the album are “Dose of Thunder” and “Lay It Down Clown,” both boring attempts at the same old ridiculous, tossed-off filler of the old albums that used to have some pertinence. As Westerberg’s songwriting was growing in confidence, the casual feel of the older records didn’t feel right anymore, leading to these songs sounding forced and ill-fitting. The bonus tracks are excellent, including probably the best song never to make a Mats’ album, “Nowhere Is My Home.” It could have taken the place of either of the aforementioned clods and made Tim a much better album. There are also two early versions of “Can’t Hardly Wait” (including the oft-bootlegged ‘airshaft’ version), a raucous demo of “Kiss Me On the Bus” that makes you wish the album had been recorded that way and a few outtakes of album tracks that are interesting enough to be worth it.
1987’s Pleased to Meet Me, my favorite of the latter day albums, comes with a walloping 11 bonus tracks ranging from album track demos (yet another version of “Can’t Hardly Wait” in addition to “Alex Chilton” and “Valentine”), to unreleased songs (“Birthday Gal,” “Photo,” “Election Day”) to great covers (“Route 66,” “Tossin’ N’ Turnin’,” “Cool Water”). One of the great things about these reissues is that there actually is a lot of stuff here for completists. Even the songs that appeared on the earlier Sire compendium All For Nothing / Nothing For All are largely different versions of the same songs. (For those of you counting, this now gives us five officially released, different versions of “Can’t Hardly Wait.”) Pleased to Meet Me is an odd album to pick as a favorite given that it’s the only album the band recorded as a trio. But the filler tracks are strong (yes, that’s right, I like “Red Red Wine,” thank you very much) and I’ve always found the production to be stellar. The closing twosome of “Skyway” and “Can’t Hardly Wait” isn’t a bad way to go out either.
1989’s much-maligned Don’t Tell a Soul actually does benefit a bit from the remastering, bringing some of the best songs out of the glossy murk. I’ve long gone to bat for this album as being much better than its reputation. “Talent Show,” “Achin’ to Be” and “I’ll Be You” rank among their best work. I’ve always also had very soft spots for “We’ll Inherit the Earth” and “Anywhere’s Better Than Here” (the latter of which I nominated for my senior class song in high school) as well. The bonus tracks here are probably the strongest of the reissues. The album song demos make the case for how good the songs are – especially the demo of “Talent Show” which makes it sound like an outtake from Pleased to Meet Me. The sincerely gorgeous “We Know the Night” and the equally brilliant “Portland” are worth the price of admission alone and the Tom Waits collaboration, “Date to Church,” is again rescued from its obscurity on the b-side of “I’ll Be You.”
1990’s All Shook Down, also sees a wealth of bonus material – again, eleven tracks – but this is an album that has had a tough row to hoe with me, personally. I always thought this album far inferior to its predecessor, though my opinion has softened over the years. The bonus tracks back up the assertion that this was, indeed, a dry-run at a Westerberg solo album. They largely sound like basement demos recorded by one man and a drum machine – think “Black Eyed Susan” from Westerberg’s 14 Songs – but they cast a different light on the muddled, studio-band sheen of the album. The lost song “Tiny Paper Plane” and a non-Johnette Napolitano-guested version of “My Little Problem” are nice additions, but the real gem of this is Tommy Stinson’s sole lead vocal and solo songwriting credit for the band, “Satellite.” If you weren’t a fan of this album to begin with, the demos are worth hearing for an alternate take on the songs, but if you really want to be convinced, track down a bootleg of the Mats’ final show in 1991. It brings these songs to life in a way that the album failed to do.
Rumors swirled for years that Peter Jesperson, co-owner of Twin/Tone Records, had been planning a 3-cd set of Twin/Tone-era unreleased material, but these re-issues may be the best that fans of the band will see. It’s certainly the most loving and insightful treatment the band has gotten and it’s good to know that well-done, extensive versions of these albums are available for new fans to discover and old fans to love again. words/ j neas
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