Welcome back, ladies and gentlemen, to the Replacements reissue campaign. Back in April, Rhino served up the first half of the band’s discography, offering remastered and expanded versions of the three LPs and one EP the ‘Mats released during their 1981-84 stint on the Twin/Tone label. Zeth Lundy chronicled that half of the group’s career in his PopMatters piece, “Anyone Can Play Guitar”. Though borrowed from a Radiohead song, that title perfectly encapsulates the original quintessence of the Replacements, who began as a sloppy, substance-abusing, Midwest hardcore punk band. By the time of their final Twin/Tone album, 1984’s Let It Be, they had honed their chops considerably, slowed their tempos occasionally, and had begun tapping into leader Paul Westerberg’s prodigious melodic gifts. This mercurial interaction of raw elements and increased focus made Let It Be the masterpiece of the hardcore era’s end, as well as the ideal calling card for attracting major labels.
This is where the second half of Rhino’s reissue series picks up. In 1985, the Replacements released their fourth album and debut for Sire, Tim. Despite its attachment to parent group WEA, Sire had earned its cool cred by offering a home to the likes the Ramones and Talking Heads. By the mid-’80s, however, it also had a superstar in Madonna, so Sire was not without the ability to rocket its artists to a level of fame beyond hipster renown.
The excellent Tim did nothing to diminish the Replacements’ standing as a beloved underground act and hardly earned the band overnight stardom (it peaked at #183 on the Billboard 200). Produced in a straight-ahead, no-frills fashion by Tommy Erdelyi (aka Tommy Ramone), the record retains all of the buzzing energy of the group’s earlier work, while adding a nice dose of punch to the rhythm section of bassist Tommy Stinson and drummer Chris Mars. Tim is cleaner sounding than Let It Be, but that’s mostly to do with the band’s evolution from unbridled punks to practiced veterans. Westerberg’s maturity as a songwriting also demanded cleaner performances. Tunes like the tight and poppy “Kiss Me on the Bus”, snarky honky-tonker “Waitress in the Sky”, and the delicate, reflective “Swingin Party” are all expertly crafted and deserving of inclusion in modern rock songbooks. If the Replacements had stampeded through these numbers in some dodgy recording studio, that would have been a crime.
Fortunately, everything aligned such that the songs that deserved close attention and care received just that, while the album’s looser and more rockin’ numbers were given room to roam. “Bastards of Young” opens with a big, skronky riff and an unhinged howl before settling into a bluesy rocker the Rolling Stones would’ve been proud to have birthed. “I’ll Buy” takes ’50s rock ‘n’ roll to a punk bar and gets it hammered. “Dose of Thunder”, meanwhile, is unadulterated hard rock. It’s the lone throwaway track on Tim, but its positioning between “Kiss Me on the Bus” and “Waitress in the Sky” provides a nice shot of mindless adrenaline. The only minor detractor on the album is “Lay It Down Clown”, a brisk yet sour-toned tune buried at track eight. The trio that concludes the record, however, is superb. “Left of the Dial” inspired an entire box set devoted to underground favorites of the ’80s, while the mid-tempo “Little Mascara” rings out like a Springsteen anthem, but it’s tempered by a beautifully bruised uncertainty. The lovely “Here Comes a Regular”, which is built mostly on strummed acoustic guitars and Westerberg’s plaintive vocals, is the perfect comedown closer.
Sadly, Tim was the final album to feature all four of the original Replacements. After that record’s tour, lead guitarist Bob Stinson was fired. His life had become too much of a mess for the rest of the band. So, it was as a trio that they recorded 1987’s Pleased to Meet Me. Jim Dickinson, who’d produced Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers, helmed the recordings. Unfortunately, he employed the standard treatments of the time: heavy reverb and a monster snare drum sound. Beneath this murk and behind the big beat, however, lurks a batch of songs which equals Tim‘s in writing and execution.
Appropriately, Big Star’s leader is paid tribute on “Alex Chilton”, a catchy, tight-riffing, and lyrically hyperbolic ditty in which Westerberg declares, “Children by the millions sing for Alex Chilton.” (Ah, if it only that were true!) That song, and many others on the album, are more carefully executed than the Replacements of past efforts, but the boys still bashed out some fuzzy rockers, too. Opener “I.O.U.” marries sludgy, bluesy guitar to Westerberg’s raspy barks and shouts, while “The Ledge” seethes with brooding post-punk intensity. The group were also expanding their palette considerably. “Nightclub Jitters” is slow and loungey and features a sax solo. Horns also punctuate the boozy call-and-response verses of “I Don’t Know” as well as the toe-tapping, sunny, and melodious album closer, “Can’t Hardly Wait”. The record’s token acoustic ballad, “Skyway”, is perhaps the Replacements’ most beautiful tune. Truly, all of the songs on Pleased to Meet Me are great in their own way. The LP gave a small bump to the band’s profile, but only enough to earn them a #131 spot on Billboard.
The Replacements – The Ledge
Their commercial breakthrough would come two years later, with the considerably mellower Don’t Tell a Soul, the first to feature new lead guitarist Slim Dunlap. Cloaked in an even heavier layer of reverb and with still more emphasis on the big drum sound that dominated the day, the album possesses a velvety smooth continuity that offers little room for the surges in dynamics and peaks of naked expression that had won the band all its early fans. There’s no way around it: Don’t Tell a Soul is the Replacements’ worst album. That said, it’s far from an embarrassment, as it contains a handful of gems. “We’ll Inherit the Earth”, despite being sonically flattened by Matt Wallace’s steamroller production, is a great big anthem at its heart.
The songs that work here bare simpler arrangements. The country-tinged “Achin’ to Be” and jangly opening cut “Talent Show” fare much better than revved-up rockers like “Back to Back” or “Anywhere’s Better Than Here”, each of which sounds strangled. The majority of the material, though, consists of mid-tempo tracks that fit in reasonably well with the leaden production values. “I’ll Be You” actually made it to #51 on the Billboard Hot 100 and went all the way to #1 on the Modern Rock charts. Toward the end of the LP, the boogie-woogie of “I Won’t” is a fun boost of energy. With its cheesy synth washes, though, penultimate track “Rock ‘n’ Roll Ghost” is maybe the ‘Mats biggest misfire ever. The band rally, however, with the final number “Darlin’ One”, which aches with the kind of passion missing from most of the record, restoring a sense of good will to listeners as Don’t Tell a Soul comes to a close. Despite its drawbacks, the album reached #57 on the Billboard 200.
The Replacements – Achin’ to Be
One year later, the Replacements rebounded from the sonically disappointing Don’t Tell a Soul with 1990’s All Shook Down. Scott Litt, who’d produced R.E.M., managed the sessions, capturing a clear, crisp sound from the band. At this point, though, Tommy Stinson and Mars primarily served as backing musicians for Westerberg. Much of the album is founded on laid-back acoustic guitar numbers. This is philosophically disappointing and nowhere near as exciting as the band’s mid-’80s heyday. On the other hand, it’s hard to be too discouraged when the songwriting is this good. Even the nearly diaphanous “Sadly Beautiful” is bewitchingly…well, let’s call it melancholy and pretty, since Westerberg already cut so neatly to the chase. Although that’s the slowest and sparest song on the record, few of All Shook Down‘s tracks are exactly barnburners.
The majority of the songs are easy-going, full of strummy delights and poignant dips into minor changes. The record’s biggest problem is a lack of distinction between some of these cuts. “When It Began” and “Nobody” bleed together, as do “Someone Take the Wheel” and “Happy Town”. With careful listens, you can learn to love each of these for what it offers, but they are otherwise like pairs of identical twins you pass on the street. More distinct is the quiet title track, with its weirdly delightful recorder melody in the chorus. Leadoff track “Merry Go Round”, too, is instantly appealing and memorable, as its follow-up, “One Wink at a Time”, which offers another dose of the horns that ameliorated Pleased to Meet Me. In general, though, there’s no mistaking All Shook Down for the earlier work of the Replacements. It’s not at all surprising that the group went its separate ways the following year. Mars didn’t even make it as far as the final tour.
The Replacements – Merry Go Round
So, they didn’t exactly go out with a bang, but nor did they whimper. The mellow All Shook Down proved a classy final album for a group that, ten years earlier, was happy to have no class at all. In the middle of that decade-long stretch, they made two of the finest albums the 1980s have to offer. From this current batch of reissues, Tim is mandatory listening and Pleased to Meet Me comes darn close. Whether or not they’re worth shelling out the bucks for these reissues is debatable. The sound quality isn’t significantly improved. But, hey, this is the Replacements we’re talking about. Audiophiles be damned. Each of these CDs boasts a great deal more music than the old pressings, but only to the hardcore does “more” generally translate into “better”, as far as bonus tracks are concerned. Does a studio demo take of “Kiss Me on the Bus” actually improve Tim? No, of course not. Still, it’s interesting to hear. Once. And then forget about. The same is true for the alternative version of “Alex Chilton”, which includes a false start. Is anyone surprised that the Replacements needed a few run-throughs before they captured a keeper take?
As for unique non-LP tracks, fans and rock purists forgive me for saying that their rendition of “Route 66” isn’t as interesting or as good as Depeche Mode’s. No, the greatest work Rhino’s reissues could accomplish would be to win over a new generation of Replacements listeners. Between the end of the punk/new wave era in the early ’80s and the beginning of the alternative years in the early ’90s, the Replacements were among the few vital American bands making great records. Albums such as these are always worth revisiting.