The Hudson Guide to Solo Paul Westerberg
Earlier this year, a reunion of the surviving members of the Replacements brought about plenty of media attention (including in these pages) to the legendary Minneapolis band. The reunion happened because lead singer Paul Westerberg was recording material for the Open Season soundtrack, and had brought in bassist Tommy Stinson to work on some material for that project. During these sessions, Rhino Records requested a couple of new tracks for a greatest hits compilation, and drummer Chris Mars was flown out for further recording (although he only contributed backing vocals).
With the release of the animated Open Season, two more collaborations with Stinson have been released (“Love You In the Fall” and “Right to Arm Bears”), along with five more new songs recorded in Minneapolis with the musicians who accompanied Westerberg on his 2004-2005 American tour (the vinyl version of the soundtrack includes two more new Westerberg tracks).
While many eyebrows were raised when it was first reported that grizzled veteran was working on an animated film, the results aren’t that much different than his last few projects. The soundtrack’s eight tunes (including a rehash of Eventually’s “Good Day”) are for the most part first-rate guitar-driven Paul Westerberg power-pop, chock full of his trademark plays on words. The titles may appear to appeal to the “tweener” set, but this is one soundtrack parents should enjoy at least as much as the children.
It’s about time that national attention finally comes to the man who has written the soundtrack for this writer. Although many people had written Westerberg off years ago after the lagging sales of his initial solo recordings, he’s one of the few artists who has actually improved with age. One friend even confided a few days ago, “I actually like his solo stuff more than the Replacements”. I wouldn’t go that far, but 2004’s Folker impacted my life just as much as Let It Be had twenty years earlier.
14 Songs (1993)
After a couple of pleasant tracks for Cameron Crowe’s Singles soundtrack, Westerberg finally got around to releasing his first solo album two years after the breakup of the Replacements. While certainly a pleasant album that contained some fine songs, 14 Songs is a tad too slick…definitely too slick for a radio environment currently in love with Seattle’s grunge scene.
Key Tracks: “Things”, “Knockin’ On Mine”.
While punchier than its predecessor (thanks to producer Lou Giordano), Eventually again was an over-produced effort. Even worse, the material on the second half of the album ranks among the worst tunes he’s ever recorded. In retrospect, however, much of the first half of the album is better than remembered.
Key Tracks: “These Are the Days”, “Love Untold”, “Good Day”.
Grandpaboy EP (1997)
Recording for the first time under the Grandpaboy moniker, this five-track EP was a back-to-basics recording that sounded like it was tossed off during a long weekend. “Lush and Green” is the token quiet track, while the other four tracks are all sort-of silly bursts of power pop fun.
Key Tracks: “Psychopharmacology”, “Lush and Green”.
Suicaine Gratifaction (1999)
Easily the most underrated album of Westerberg’s career, and a victim of record company politics. Westerberg was signed to Capitol Records by label head Gary Gersh, a longtime Replacements fan whose main claim to fame was signing Nirvana to Geffen Records. Gersh promised Westerberg that he would have complete creative control, but by the time Westerberg turned in the tapes Gersh had been replaced.
The new regime didn’t share Gersh’s passion, and also didn’t like the lo-fi, mainly piano-based recordings Westerberg had produced in his home. Session musicians were called in to add overdubs, along with a couple of new tunes recorded.
Yet this album is a turning point in Westerberg’s career. Instead of attempting to recreate the glory days of the Replacements with hired hands and glossy production, Westerberg attempted new methods of writing and recording (which admittedly was not always successful). The basic tracks recorded in his basement set the stage for the next five years of his career.
Key Tracks: “It’s a Wonderful Lie”, “Born For Me”, “Best Thing That Never Happened”.
After virtually disappearing for three years (leading to rumors of depression and drug abuse), Westerberg shocked even his biggest fans with the release of this double-disc package on Vagrant Records.
Although packaged together, each album stands alone in concept and material. Mono (initially released separately two months earlier as a Grandpaboy release) is pure garage-band heaven mixed, as the title states, in mono. Stereo is acoustic-based, and, as you may guess, is a stereo recording. Westerberg also plays every instrument on both albums, although there are rumors that Stinson supplied some backup vocals.
Both albums are as good as anything he had previously recorded, although his drumming skills do leave a bit to be desired. Yet it’s not the technical prowess that matters on these albums; it’s the material, and the majority of the tunes are top-notch.
Key Tracks: (From Mono) “Silent Film Star”, “2 Days ‘Til Tomorrow”, “Between Love and Like”. (From Stereo) “No Place For You”, “We May Be the One”, Let the Bad Times Roll”.
Dead Man Shake (As Grandpaboy)/Come Feel Me Tremble (2003)
While not packaged together, these two albums were released on the same day, ala Guns and Roses “Use Your Illusion” albums. For Dead Man Shake, Westerberg re-imagined his Grandpaboy character as a grizzled bluesman. While only a portion of the album is truly blues-based, there is a unity of sound on this 14-track collection of originals and covers of John Prine (“Souvenirs”), Hank Williams (“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”) and Anthony Newly (a drunken karaoke version of “What Kind of Fool Am I?”).
On the other hand, it could be argued that Come Feel Me Tremble is a tribute of sorts to the Stones. Many tracks, particularly on the first half of the album, are centered around riffs that sound as if they were stolen from the Keith Richards songbook. The album is also a soundtrack to the DVD of the same name, which not only included footage of the recording of many of these tracks but followed Westerberg around on his 2002 solo tour.
Grades: B (Dead Man Shake)/A- (Come Feel Me Tremble)
Key Tracks: (From Dead Man Shake) “MPLS”, “Vampires and Failures”. (From Come Feel Me Tremble) “Making Me Go”, “My Daydream”, “Crackle and Drag”.
Arguably the pinnacle of his solo career, Folker is a bit of a concept album detailing the trials and tribulations of an artist reluctantly entering middle age. Relationship issues, the imminent death of his father, and competition from younger, snottier songwriters are just a few of the topics that dominate this album.
Folker is also the rare album that stacks the strongest tracks towards the end of the disc, finally exploding with“Folk Star”, a blistering Faces-esque rocker that comments on the merits of songwriters such as Jeff Tweedy and Ryan Adams. Weseterberg once again operates as a one-man band, but unlike his earlier basement recordings the arrangements and production are more elaborate.
Key Tracks: “My Dad”, “As Far As I Know”, “How Can You Like Him?”, “Folk Star”.
Rhino Records certainly had the fans in mind when they put together this compilation. Besides a track or two from each of his solo albums (except for Folker), almost half of this album compiles rare tunes from soundtracks, promos, and singles. There’s also three outtakes from Eventually that would have greatly improved the weakest album he’s ever released.
Key Tracks: “Seein’ Her”, “Stain Yer Blood”, “C’mon C’mon C’mon”.