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Paul versus Paul
Or, Westerberg versus Grandpaboy

Back in their mid-’80s heyday, the Replacements were a famously unpredictable live band. Yes, in Paul Westerberg they had a truly gifted frontman: a singer/guitarist who was rapidly establishing himself one of his era’s songwriting greats; an artist capable of sketching moving narratives, generating powerful waves of emotion, and articulating a mixture of vulnerability and alienation that captured the mood of a disoriented generation. But on stage the Replacements were an obnoxious, drunken mess, butchering Westerberg’s songs along with any number of cheesy cover tunes they half knew how to play. (A semi-official document of one of these performances exists in the form of the cassette-only Twin Tone release When the Shit Hits the Fans.) This "other" side of the Replacements showed up in the studio, too, on raucous romps like "Gary’s Got a Boner" and a cover of the Kiss tune "Black Diamond," both on the landmark 1984 album Let It Be (TwinTone). The Jekyll/Hyde split in the band’s persona was so pronounced that somewhere along the line the too-drunk-to-play Replacements picked up an endearing nickname, the ’Mats, that probably had its origin as a derivation of "placemats," one of several phony names Westerberg would use to introduce the band on particularly wasted nights.

The ’Mats were integral to the Replacements both creatively and commercially. It was the ’Mats who got the Replacements kicked off a Tom Petty tour that might have helped them reach a wider audience. It was also the ’Mats who embodied the reckless edge that made the Replacements more than just another Midwestern bar band. Just how crucial the ’Mats were to Westerberg’s artistic psyche has become apparent with the emergence of Grandpaboy, a ’Mats-style alter ego that seems to have jump-started his flagging solo career.

In retrospect, it’s hard to ignore how closely the end of the ’Mats paralleled the bad case of the blands Westerberg came down with as he made the transition from the Replacements to his solo career. All Shook Down (Sire, 1990) — the final Replacements album — was in essence a Westerberg solo effort, and the polished middle-of-the-road rock that characterized much of that disc was a harbinger of what was to come as Westerberg dug himself into deeper and deeper holes with the unremarkable 1993 solo album 14 Songs and 1996’s Eventually (both Sire). Some blamed the decline of his songwriting on his sobering up. But it now appears that he’s simply an artist who needs the outlet of a reckless and irresponsible alter ego in order to hit the kind of "Unsatisfied" emotional peaks he brought to the Replacements.

Evidence for this theory abounds on Come Feel Me Tremble (Vagrant), the Paul Westerberg solo album that came out last week right alongside Dead Man Shake (Fat Possum), a new Paul Westerberg Grandpaboy CD. As refreshing as Westerberg’s raucous and bloozy, roughly produced Grandpaboy releases have been (including Dead Man Shake), none of them has recaptured the magic of the Replacements. But they’ve all been a lot of fun, and they seem to have helped reacquaint him with the torn and frayed Muse that inspired the beautiful mess of the Replacements. Although only time will tell how Come Feel Me Tremble stands up next to Westerberg’s Replacements recordings, it’s not too soon to label it the Let It Be — or at least the Tim of his solo career.

In spite of the touchy/feely title, Tremble is anything but a mellow singer-songwriterly work. Just as there was never a clear-cut divide between the Replacements and the ’Mats, there’s plenty of Grandpaboy grit mixed in with the acoustic strumming on Tremble. The disc opens with a hard-chugging blues-rocker ("Dirty Diesel") and a couple of tracks that do little more than wrap a few beefy guitar chords and a muscular backbeat around a clever turn of phrase — "Soldier of Misfortune" and the softer, strummier "What a Day (for a Night)." But you can almost feel Westerberg reconnecting with his Muse on two versions of "Crackle & Drag," a stark suicide narrative that brings to mind the Replacements tracks "The Ledge" and "Little Mascara," one with a stronger acoustic-guitar base, the other with a heavier electric vibe. By the time you get to the messy and messed-up "Knockin’ Em Back" (a tune about drinking to help the pills kick in) and the plangent acoustic "Meet Me Down the Alley" (which marries the romance of "I Will Dare" with the hushed tones of "Here Comes a Regular"), Westerberg is sounding more inspired then he has in years. That the disc is full of allusions, references, and reminders of the songs that made the Replacements great is no accident, and he seems to realize this: in Jackson Browne’s "These Days," the disc’s final song, he meanders on and off key through a vaguely jazzy backdrop only to deliver the disc’s most poignant confession: "Please don’t confront me with my failures/I have not forgotten them."

Issue Date: October 24 - 30, 2003
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