Sunday, March 27, 2016

My Back Pages, Vol. 3: The Replacements - Tim

Welcome to My Back Pages, a new collaborative staff feature that will survey a landscape of renowned classics and unheralded gems alike, most of which no one around here ever writes a word about. The rules are simple and loose: we won’t cover anything from this millennium and we will avoid all or most favorites—though we might make an exception if something is nearing a milestone anniversary. Beyond that though, anything is fair game. So if you have an album, artist, or genre you would like to see discussed in this feature, feel free to throw us a few recs.

This week, we are taking a look at The Replacements' seminal 1985 album Tim. Produced by Tommy Ramone, the record was the band's first on a major label, and is arguably one of the most influential records of all times in terms of American underground rock music. So check the replies for our thoughts and a full Rdio stream of the record, as well as a link to the record on Spotify. And as always, feel free to jump in with any comments, anecdotes, or discussion questions you may have.

Chris Collum: I need you to do me a favor: take a quick glance at the upper left hand corner of this web page. Unless Jason got a little too drunk last night, this should still be, or as any snarky lip-ringed twenty-eight-year-old in the comments section of the last Frank Ocean news post will remind you, "!" That's right people, this is a website that is absolutely rooted in the punk rock community, whatever that means in the era of GarageBand and Spotify. Whether you think of it as a style of music, a way of life, a set of political ideologies, or merely a long-forgotten trend that died around the same time disco did, if you visit this website you probably have your own definition of what the word "punk" means.

The Replacements were (and maybe still are--more on that later) first and foremost a punk band. They started out playing two-and-a-half-minute songs concocted in a Minneapolis basement that emphasized speed and an in-your-face aesthetic over technical ability or melody. Or to put it simply: "turn that shit up!" as Paul Westerberg howled on "Takin' a Ride," the opening song on the band's 1981 debut full-length Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash. But then something remarkable happened. Whether it was the influence long-time manager Peter Jesperson had on the band by playing them countless records from Miles Davis to 60s AM pop hits, the disillusionment and dismay that many encounter when they reach their mid-20s taking its toll on Westerberg, or simply the quartet learning to play their instruments a little better, by the time The Replacements fell apart at the end of the 80s, they had become so much more than just a punk band. The Replacements in many ways were the first indie rock band, the first grunge band, the first pop-punk band and hell at times the first alt-country band, or at least they strayed dangerously close to it. The list of very popular artists that would not ever have existed as they did without the band runs the gamut from Nirvana to Goo Goo Dolls to blink-182 to Modest Mouse to Ryan Adams. While almost nobody paid attention, The Replacements singlehandedly did more to create the underground American rock scene than any band besides R.E.M. and Sonic Youth did.

Fast forward almost five years past Sorry Ma and the band is no longer on local Minneapolis indie label Twin/Tone, having signed to Sire to put out their fourth record Tim. The record that proceeds Tim, Let It Be, is often the album that people point to as "the one," whether it's the album where the band took a huge stylistic step forward, the album where they really caught people's attention, or often the first indie rock album, a title that the record occasionally receives and certainly has earned. It's also the album that sounds the best, in that it eschews the noisier production of the group's first two efforts, while still steering well clear of the slickness that defined some of the band's later work. (Be forewarned that Tim sounds very trebly at times; it was produced by Tommy Eredlyi a.k.a Tommy Ramone but for some reason nothing sounds that great). But Tim is the record where The Replacements as a band truly shine their brightest.

The main reason for this is that the record is inarguably the peak of Paul Westerberg's songwriting. Furthermore, Westerberg truly claimed the role of "voice of his generation" on this album. Sure hardly anyone paid attention, but he fills those shoes nonetheless. In the song "Bastards of Young," one of Tim's many highlights and a song that is certainly one of the band's very best, Westerberg has this to say about the in-between generation he was a part of, the very bastards of young he sings about: "unwillingness to claim us, ain't got no war to name us." Westerberg is ill-at-ease not because of the way he perceives his generation has been defined, but rather by the total lack of definition. Many artists in rock 'n roll documented the general restlessness that many Americans felt during the Reagan years, but few did it better than he did.

Maybe I'm just a little bit more off-kilter than the average twenty-something (well, I'm a bit younger too), but I doubt there's a soul between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine who doesn't understand exactly what Westerberg means when he pleads with the listener to "hold my life, until I'm ready to use it" on Tim's opening song. There's an earnest sadness about him that was something new for a guy who was supposed to be fronting a punk rock band. He absolutely drew, whether knowledgeably or not, from country music in his ability to craft a pop song that feels so bitterly real to the listener. Closing track "Here Comes a Regular" is the finest example of this, since if your heart doesn't hit the floor much like its sotted protagonist by the last drunken strum, it probably wasn't beating in the first place.

That is not to say that the band doesn't rock out on this LP, however. Far from it. "Bastards" is as anthemic as you could possibly imagine, even ending in a style directly reminiscent of The Who's "My Generation." "Lay It Down Clown" and "Dose of Thunder" are both blistering punk rock numbers, complete with guitar work from Bob Stinson that doesn't sound too far-removed from the speed metal that cropped up in the mid-80s as well. This record is also the last album The Replacements would record with Stinson before he was kicked out for drinking too much--a feat amongst this notoriously inebriated bunch. The Replacements also showed off their pop side, something that was almost unanimously frowned upon in indie rock circles in the 80s, especially in the more punk rock territory The Replacements perviously inhabited, which was still under hardcore's chokehold. "Kiss Me on the Bus" could very well have been a Top 40 hit, and many point to it as "the reason girls like The Replacements too." (Which seems like sexist bullshit, but one must recall that in 1985, indie rock was still very much a boys' game. Kim Gordon was not yet an underground household name.)

If you're looking for one song by which to define the 80s indie rock movement, however, you probably don't need to look much further than "Left of the Dial." Purportedly written as a plaintive love song dedicated to a woman who fronted some long-since-forgotten 80s college rock band, it has forever immortalized the 80s underground rock and college rock scene. All the elements remain there, frozen in time for those of us who were not born until years later to behold and pledge our allegiance to. It is perhaps Westerberg's finest moment, and certainly a must-hear song for anyone who listens to rock music not wholly contained by the mainstream.

Craig Manning: When Chris told me that he wanted to do a Replacements record this week, I can’t say I was surprised. These guys are to Chris what Butch Walker is to me, in that almost no one on this site can match his ardent admiration of their music, and in that case, I’m a bit at a loss for what to say here. The first time I heard these guys and took notice, I think I was about 14 or 15, channel surfing through primetime TV schedules until I heard a snippet of a song that made me stop. Something about the desolate acoustic guitar, about the anguished emotion in the singer’s voice, caught my ear and made me reverse direction.

I can’t remember what the TV show was, exactly. Probably some sappy teen soap opera ending its night on a particularly depressing note. But the song stayed with me. It became one of my all-time favorites, one of those comforting, old-friend records that you drop the needle on after a demoralizing Friday night, or put on the iPod when it’s one in the morning and you’ve still got 200 miles of highway stretching out between you and home. The song is "Here Comes a Regular," the closer from Tim, and still my favorite song in The Replacements' catalog.

Eventually, I got around to checking out the rest of the record, and later, more of the band's work. The roar of the guitars, Paul Westerberg’s unmistakable yelp, and the not-so-pristine production were cornerstones of a sound that I found both intriguing and disorienting, euphoric and bruising. And so I kept listening, my ears in turn being buffeted by the band’s anthemic rock ‘n’ roll and baffled by their scattershot musical influences and frequently tongue in cheek attitude.

But that’s the thing about The Replacements. They can do that punked-up, tortured teen angst thing better than almost anyone (the searing electricity of "Bastards of Young," as Chris noted, is particularly essential), but then they can turn around and spit out these fun, throw away, nonsense rock songs (the bluesy bar-band kick of "Lay it Down Clown" sounds like it could have been improvised on the spot). That tendency to flit between transcendence and all-out spontaneity won’t sell Tim’s classic status for everyone, nor will the pure eclecticism on display here. But Chris is right: Tim, along with the equally stellar Let It Be—which was almost the album we featured this week—demands to be heard simply for the titanic shift it brought upon the rock music landscape. These guys were pioneers of alternative rock, helping to pave the way for the vast majority of musical movements that would take precedence once the 1990s hit. And even today, their shockwaves continue to radiate: you can hear them in the reckless abandon of Japandroids' Celebration Rock, or in the boozy bombast of The Hold Steady's Boys & Girls in America. And they’re certainly there, alongside Springsteen, in the classic rock throwbacks of The Gaslight Anthem or Jesse Malin. Suffice to say that, if you’re on this site and you haven’t heard Tim or Let It Be, you’re doing yourself a disservice.

But the first time I listened to Tim, I was overwhelmed. There’s a lot going on with this record, and for someone who was born and raised more on folk and alt-country than on the punk culture, it took me some time for me to get used to the messy production and the borderline-unhinged musical performances therein. Let It Be may be considered the better starting point, or for that matter, the better record—Pitchfork gave Let It Be a 10.0 and Tim an 8.7, but Rolling Stone ranked Tim a solid hundred slots higher on their 500 Greatest Albums list, so either argument is valid—but Tim, I think, is the more fascinating portrait of a band at their peak. Where Let It Be is a cleaner condensation of everything that made the 'Mats so great in the first place, Tim is the sound of a band, newly minted by the major label system, throwing everything they have at the canvas to see what sticks. We get the stereo-scorching barnstormers (opener "Hold My Life") and the amplifiers-turned-up-to-eleven punk surges ("I’ll Buy," "Dose of Thunder"), but we also get interesting explorations of influences that we might not expect to hear on a punk rock record—Chuck Berry on "Kiss Me on the Bus," Roy Orbison on "Swingin' Party," or early country/western textures on "Waitress in the Sky"—and that adventurous sensibility lends some nice heft to the album’s mid-section.

But still, my favorite thing about Tim—and the reason I ultimately choose it over Let It Be—is that it all comes winding back to "Here Comes a Regular." The end of the record, in general, is just ridiculously strong. There’s a reason that "Left of the Dial" remains a staple of college radio playlists even now, and "Little Mascara" just burns, refrain vocals, guitar solo, and all. But the second the latter fades away and the ringing acoustic chords of "Regular" take over, I’m done for. Everything about that song—the words, the slightly drunken lilt of Westerberg’s voice, the revolving simplicity of the guitar part, the shimmering piano solo, the flickering wind chimes around the 3:52 mark, the mournful, descending synth line near the end, or the spacious, solitary reverb that blankets the proceedings—it all combines to produce this indescribably lonely atmosphere. It’s one of the greatest songs of all time—top 20, no question. And every punk or pop punk album with a token acoustic ballad? These are the heights those bands have been trying to reach for 27 years.

Chris Collum: Not unlike Craig, "Here Comes a Regular" was the first 'Mats song I ever fell head-over-heels for as well, although it was not the first one I heard. I have written a whole lot about this band in a lot of different capacities, but if for some reason you're interested in torturing yourself with more of my thoughts, I recently reviewed a new documentary about the band, which you should check out whether or not you read my review. I also highly, highly recommend the book "Our Band Could Be Your Life" about the 80s underground rock scene; the chapter about the 'Mats is particularly good. The bottom line on this record and this band is that whether or not you agree with my proposition that they're the most influential rock band to ever exist in the last thirty years, indie rock and grunge wouldn't exist without them, everyone would have been listening to just that one Red Hot Chili Peppers record over and over again for all of the 90s without them, blah blah blah, you need to listen to the 'Mats if you haven't before. You will not regret it, and I think you will be surprised how much of it already sounds very, very familiar.

One final note: Westerberg and bassist Tommy Stinson recently got together for the first time in decades to record the Songs for Slim EP of covers, which is out today (03/05). All proceeds from sales of the EP help to pay medical expenses for former 'Mats guitarist Slim Dunlap (who replaced Stinson after Tim). Dunlap suffered a stroke last year and is now partially paralyzed. Pick that up in digital form here. Also Westerberg has hinted that he and Tommy might record something else in the future since in his words they still "rock like murder." We shall see.

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