The Boston Phoenix
November 6 - 13, 1997

[Music Reviews]

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True romance

The bittersweet legacy of the Replacements

by Stephanie Zacharek

Let's start by making some gross generalizations totally unsupported by scientific proof, indeed completely unprovable by any means whatsoever. The conventional wisdom is that women are more romantic than men -- that they swoon over gifts of flowers and candy, that when they see suave, considerate leading men in the movies and on television, they swat their slouchy, slack-jawed boyfriends on the shoulder and exclaim, "Why can't you be more like that?" Men, by contrast, flee from romance and commitment, stutter over the words "I love you," and would rather tinker with cars and stuff than actually hold a woman's hand in public, simply because they don't "get" it.

Whenever I hear anyone engaged in a discussion of love and romance that includes lots of eye-rolling about I-love-yous never said and flowers never sent, and statements like, "You know how guys are," I fade out for a moment -- and think of the Replacements. If you survey their career, from their 1981 indie debut album, Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out the Trash (Twin Tone), to their last release (largely considered a Paul Westerberg solo record), 1990's All Shook Down (Sire), being sure to take into account every sloppy and/or brilliant drunken live gig in between, you might see only four guys who sure as hell had "bad boyfriend" written all over them. And how romantic is that? Yet I'm convinced -- again, on the basis of nothing more than a little empirical evidence and a gut feeling, and anyone who wants to write in and hang me out to dry should feel free to do so -- that there are more deeply romantic men on this earth than deeply romantic women. And one of my ratty shreds of evidence, my Exhibit A, if you will, is a group of four scruffy guys from Minneapolis.

You get a fine overview of the Replacements' collective romantic soul on All for Nothing, Nothing for All (Reprise), a two-disc set that's partly a "greatest hits" of sorts (though the band had no real hits) and partly a selection of previously unreleased rarities, many of them sloppy and rough but most of them also raggedly passionate. Disc one includes material spanning 1985's Tim to All Shook Down, and it's like a snapshot of the band at their best (though it doesn't offer any of their highly touted Twin Tone recordings). For a group of guys who were so legendarily beer-soused, the songs here show amazing discipline. It's not so much the sound of a band who might have rehearsed five days a week at 6 p.m. sharp as the sound of one who loved nothing more than to play, and whose members miraculously snapped to when they found themselves together in a room.

In both the songwriting and the execution, you hear sizzling interconnection and clashing waves of brilliance that added up to something greater than the sum of its parts. Tommy Stinson and Chris Mars, on bass and drums, respectively, both drove the songs and built a fluid but supportive framework for them; the late Bob Stinson's guitar could rail and sputter or slip into a tender whisper. (Unreliable and troubled, Bob, Tommy's brother, was kicked out after Tim, later to be replaced by Slim Dunlap. He died a couple of years ago.) And Paul Westerberg's voice -- a frayed shirt cuff of a voice, gangly and uncontrollable and subject to cracking -- represented vulnerability deeply recessed into the shadows of guardedness.

Together, the four of them forged a brand of exhilaration born of bitter disappointment and lowered expectations. Even at their most troubled -- in songs like "Here Comes a Regular" (1985) and "The Ledge" (1986) -- they were never exactly depressing or morose. That's because the Replacements were never whiny losers. You always had a sense of how much they'd started out hoping for and what they felt they had to settle for, and their outrage and disappointment was the electrical current that ran in between. Their desires ran so strong and so deep -- you can hear that in every fiery, bristling chord -- and yet Westerberg, in his lyrics, often circled around them, as if they were just too much for him to stare down directly. "In my stupid hat and gloves at night I lie awake/Wondering if I'll sleep/Wondering if we'll meet out in the street," he sings in "Skyway" (1986), as if he were trying to fool himself into believing that staying warm, physically, is more important than seeing his crush on the street. (There's no way it is.)

Even for hardcore Replacements fans, the songs on disc one of All for Nothing, taken as a whole, make a good refresher course in why we love them so much. You're reminded of the anxious yearning in "Achin' To Be" and "Can't Hardly Wait" (both from 1988); reminded that "Here Comes a Regular" (1985) is really a sideways "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," matching that song drop for drop in weary despair; reminded of how the group seemed to blossom, sounding focused and more in synch than ever, under Jim Dickinson's production. (Four of the tracks here are from the Dickinson-produced 1987 Pleased To Meet Me, which was recorded at Ardent, the studio favored by Memphis legend and Replacements hero Alex Chilton.)

The oddball rarities on disc two are less satisfying overall, but they do show us another side of the band. The songs seem looser -- okay, many of them sound downright shitfaced -- and many of them have a kind of rough-and-tumble rec-room playfulness. It's fun to hear the Replacements cutting loose on "Date to Church," with its handclaps and cheesy organ riffs, or vamping it up on "Cruella DeVil" (both from 1988). The best songs, though, are more raw and tender than goofy: the easy C&W shuffle of "Portland" (1988) speaks of regrets and missed opportunities, and an alternate version of "Can't Hardly Wait" (1985) crackles with urgency and desperation captured like lightning bugs in a jar.

But the sense you get from All for Nothing, Nothing for All is that as a band the Replacements always expected too much from life and love, not too little. It's ironic that many Replacements fans who lament their passing -- generally the same people who feel that Westerberg wrote better songs before he gave up the bottle -- still like to celebrate the band's "glory" days as lowlifes who resigned themselves to getting drunk and playing divy bars (or bigger venues that they made seem like divy bars). The Replacements should be remembered for more than that: they weren't just a sloppy good-time band who accidentally found ways to tap into our slurred, undefined feelings of inadequacy and insecurity. They wore their hopelessness as a kind of majesty -- as a badge of the way things really should be, if only they weren't so fucked up. The Replacements may have forgotten the flowers and the candy, figuratively speaking, but they always delivered on the goods that mattered, the words and music that cut close to the bone. They went farther out than most of us ever dare to -- and in the end, that meant they had farther to fall.

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