All for a Good Cause
I learned the hard way that debating the merits of the former Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson’s songwriting work can lead to much awkwardness. Case in point: It was 1998, I was just finishing journalism school in Ottawa, Canada, and managed to snag a meeting with the editor-in-chief of The Ottawa Xpress, which is the city’s alternative weekly, to discuss story ideas I had for the paper. I met this individual in his dimly lit, almost broom closet-sized backroom office one weekday morning, and before I got around to making some pitches, we made small talk, yapping about various bands or musicians that we liked and admired.
I don’t know how we got onto the legendary Replacements, one of the pre-eminent bands of the ‘80s college rock revolution, but we did and I brought up that I really liked the teenaged Stinson’s contribution to the band. He had a song called “Satellite” that I had fallen for on the, at the time, fairly recently released All for Nothing, Nothing for All compilation of album cuts and rarities spanning the group’s tenure on Sire Records. (“Satellite” was, of course, relegated to the B-sides disc as it never saw the light of day on any Replacements album.) Well, there was a pregnant pause in the room before the editor-in-chief casually remarked, “Eh, that song’s just okay. But what can you expect from the band’s bassist? Bassists never contribute worthwhile songs”. And that was that. I did go on to write a few articles for the indie paper before landing a dream gig on the arts desk of the major broadsheet newspaper in town for an incredible summer not long after that, but I have to wonder if I shot down my chances for a regular gig at the indie journalist level by swearing by my affinity for all things Tommy Stinson.
While the bassist played second fiddle in the Replacements to the godlike talent of front man Paul Westerberg, Stinson’s career didn’t exactly implode after the break-up of that band in 1991—not counting a reported stint as a telemarketer in the ‘90s during one particularly lean period. He went on to form the bluesy Bash & Pop in the early ‘90s—stepping out to be singer and guitarist—and then, when that group folded, he formed another, more straight-ahead rock band called Perfect, which lasted the better part of the decade. What Stinson is best known for though, at least post-Replacements, is for being the bassist in the current iteration of Guns N’ Roses. What’s more, aside from being a gun for hire in that band (ha!), Stinson has gone on to replace the late Karl Mueller as bassist in fellow Minnesota rockers Soul Asylum as well. Add a solo effort released in 2004 entitled Village Gorilla Head, and what you have is a guy who is certainly in demand—or whom at least likes to work a lot. Now, Stinson is unleashing his follow-up solo album, One Man Mutiny, released on his own Done to Death Music label, which feels like a distillation of all that he’s learned at the right hands of both Axl Rose and Westerberg. Sometimes, that distillation of the two seemingly disparate sources comes right in the same song.
That tendency rears itself only two tracks in, on the bluesy swagger of “It’s a Drag”, which bristles against the sonic touchstone of the Replacements’ infatuation with swampy Small Faces early-styled rock and roll. There’s meat and muscle to be found in the song, and even though it rambles into Stones territory, it’s not very far from the metallic hustle that Guns N’ Roses would lay down. In fact, the opening two salvos, “Don’t Deserve You” and “It’s a Drag”, show Stinson infatuated with the garage revival of the likes of the Black Keys. The riffs are loose and smothered in Southern grease, and Stinson’s voice—which was helium-like on “Satellite”—is now deeper, fuller and much more worn for wear.
As a whole, the songs aren’t bad, but they actually are the most incongruous things to be found on the record, because by the time you get to the third track, “Meant to Be”, Stinson shifts gears noticeably, and moves squarely into Westerbergian homage for the remainder of the 10 cuts to be found on One Man Mutiny. As far as the first two items go, the name of the record label seems a bit ironic: indeed, this style of gritty rock and roll has been, quite literally, done to death. The opening is a bit strange considering the more poppy track Stinson takes with the rest of the material. It’s as though Stinson wanted to prove his mettle to the meatheads in the crowd who lap up his Guns work. It’s not an embarrassing way to begin an album, but it does feel a little rote.
By the time you get to “Meant to Be”, the tone shifts dramatically into Replacements style jangle rock. This, too, is not a bad thing as the song is agreeable enough with a hummable melody, but it is interchangeable with anything either Westerberg or Whiskeytown-era Ryan Adams has penned: basic Americana heartland rock with a hint of pop peppered into the mix. “All This Way for Nothing”, which is up next on the playlist, is essentially more of the same, though there’s the presence of a slide guitar that you can wipe your brow with just to change things up very slightly, which conversely references back to the double opening shot of songs. “Come to Hide” is an acoustic guitar ballad of the sort that would snuggle in quite nicely on the Replacements’ languid swan song All Shook Down.
The rest of One Man Mutiny basically follows a similar pattern: you’d swear that some of these tracks were pulled from the ‘Mats songbook, though the album gets progressively countrified as it goes along. “Zero to Stupid”, in particular, feels like an empty bottle re-write of “If Only You Were Lonely”. The final cut and title track is an off-the-cuff acoustic jangle that reaches back to the feel of “Treatment Bound” with its delayed count-in intro, broken up by Stinson’s fits of laughter trying to keep a straight face while starting the song. It was actually recorded with Guns N’ Roses members Dizzy Reed and Richard Fortus in the Conrad Hotel’s restaurant in Brussels, Belgium, during a day off from the Guns’ 2010 world tour. Closer to home, Stinson manages to convince his fiancée Emily Roberts to duet with him on “Destroy Me”, which is another cookie-cutter Westerberg sound-a-like. Overall, originality isn’t really Stinson’s strong suit.
One Man Mutiny is, then, a showcase for Stinson’s skills mining disparate genres of music, from the blues to jangle pop to country. As a result, it is a lumpy concoction that doesn’t quite form into something that feels thematically or musically connected as a whole. Still, it is a generally solid collection of songs for those who forlornly wait for that full-fledged Replacements reunion that will probably never happen. Plus, there’s a charitable reason to buy this album: a portion of the net proceeds from the album’s sales will go towards funding the Timkatec Schools in Haiti, which house and provide skilled trade education for abandoned and orphaned youths in Port-au-Prince. Given the utter catastrophe that befell the city and country following last year’s earthquake, this is a particularly worthy cause that Stinson has wound up supporting. Therefore, buy One Man Mutiny if you want a dose of music while donating to something noble and great. But also buy the record if you need any further proof that there was more than one talent in the Replacements. While One Man Mutiny doesn’t aspire to reach the heights of the Holy Trinity of Let It Be, Tim or Pleased to Meet Me, the album makes a case for Stinson’s songwriting prowess, even if it does feel a bit borrowed throughout his sophomore release. Despite its familiarity, One Man Mutiny makes a case that sometimes bassists do have something worthwhile to contribute musically. Just don’t say that out loud to any indie paper editor-in-chiefs.
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