22 October 2009

Albums You Must Own (#2 of a series)

Pleased To Meet Me (Sire 1987)

A raucous bar band clearly influenced by the punk music scene, Minneapolis' The Replacements formed in 1980. A demo tape given to a local record store owner with dreams of starting his own record company led to the group's first record a year later on now legendary indie label Twin/Tone, Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash. Two other LPs and an EP followed. Most notable of these may have been 1983's Let It Be, which commonly lands on "Best Albums of the 1980's" lists, which famously earned an "A+" from persnickety rock critic Robert Christgau, then writing in The Village Voice.

No doubt: Let It Be is a great record, mixing the punk sensibilities with the newly developing songwriting maturity of the linchpin of The Replacements: singer and guitarist Paul Westerberg. The bookend tracks of the album will always be rock highlights: "I Will Dare," an aggressive, urgent mandolin-driven (courtesy of R.E.M.'s Peter Buck) rockabilly number, and "Answering Machine," a turn-it-up-to-11 solo guitar and voice song that encapsulates the uneasy transition of Westerberg from notorious stage presence to promising author.

With predictable indignation from some fans, The Replacements signed with Warner Brothers subsidiary Sire and released 1985's solid effort Tim, produced by Tommy Ramone. Subsequently, founding member and guitarist Bob Stinson left the band either because he disagreed with Westerberg's new musical path or had let alcohol abuse get the best of him.

But the next professional decision proved to be artistically brilliant: going to Memphis to record with the accomplished Jim Dickinson. Throughout his career as a musician, Dickinson would play with such rock Illuminati as Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. In 1987, his producing credits had included the critically acclaimed Third/Sister Lovers by Big Star.

The result of the sessions at Ardent Studios was Pleased To Meet Me, a diverse collection of songs marrying the profound with the profane of The Replacements. The juxtaposition of the business and the fans is illustrated aptly by the record's cover (above).

The 11 tracks clock in just shy of 33 minutes, an ode to the old LP format. And there isn't a misfire among them. The first words out of Westerberg's mouth in the nasty Stones-ish opener "I.O.U." are: Get me out of this stinkin' fresh air/Ninety days in the electric chair. And as if to reinforce the "no surrender" vibe, it is followed by the immediate bombast of "Alex Chilton," a tribute to the mysterious Memphis-bred lead singer of The Box Tops and the aforementioned Big Star. But wait; is our boy Paul stretching his creative legs? Indeed he is, artfully melding the soul and pop of Chilton's unique sound underneath the chugging heavy lead guitar line. Reinforcing the cult-like mystery of the man in music circles, Westerberg inquires: Children by the million/Sing for Alex Chilton when he comes around/Saying I'm in love/What's that song?/I'm in love with that song - and going as far as to personally profess I never travel far/Without a little big star. It's a performance that will serve to be one of the highlights of The Replacements' career.

The fun-house clatter coupled with Sex Pistols ethos of "I Don't Know" follows, directly addressing the indie vs. sell-out question (One foot in the door/The other foot in the gutter/The sweet smell that you adore/Yeah, I think I'd rather smother). The almost bipolar life on the road is embodied in the first full exhale on the album in the slow, jazzy vibe of "Nightclub Jitters." The clever pacing, both musically and lyrically, of Pleased To Meet Me closes out Side One with the first person mental disintegration of a young man on "The Ledge."

The flip side of the 33rpm jangles forward, but barely. The singer dismisses out of hand a hope for absolution because The words I thought I brought/Are now out of the question/Never mind. Is it, indeed, All over but the shouting/Just a waste of time? Maybe. Westerberg then laments the loss of a particular love in "Valentine," but at least cares enough to look back and rhapsodize about the experience.

Then it's back to basics for The 'Mats. Or at least bellying up to the bar to numb all the heartache the listener has been enduring for the past few tracks. "Shooting Dirty Pool" and "Red Red Wine" give us the buzz-y feedback feeling of the time-honored rock virtues of drinking and raising hell.

The album then reaches its apex with two tales of frustrating attempts to achieve meaningful human connection. But at least the narrators are actively struggling and not just throwing in the towel as in the previous album tales of lonesome mid-air tumbles or emptying the last change out of one's pocket. A gentle blues anchored by a meandering acoustic guitar melody, "Skyway," defines wintertime in Minneapolis for anyone familiar with the pedestrian labyrinths above the streets. The final track is an out-and-out triumph: "Can't Hardly Wait," which would serve as a springboard to a more confident songwriting path for Westerberg (but unfortunately - and maybe unfairly - not a more lucrative career, both in future Replacements and solo work). Producer Dickinson pulls out all the stops here: Chilton sits in on guitar and the Memphis Horns lend a firm bottom leading to the song's bridge. Purposely ambiguous (will the character ever find what he is looking for?), "Can't Hardly Wait" finds Westerberg waxing truly poetic (I'll write you a letter tomorrow/Tonight I can't hold a pen/Someone's got a stamp that I can borrow/I promise I won't blow the address again) as well as brilliantly wry (Jesus rides beside me/He never buys any smokes), and eventually soars even further with the aid of . . . a string section. The perfect production fade-out leaves you wanting more.

As a listener, you've gone lyrically from I.O.U. nothing to I can hardly wait. Are these characters using Westerberg's voice in rock purgatory suddenly seeing a glimmer of light? Or are they stuck in a parallel universe? You yearn to know the answer, so you have no choice: you turn the record over, and start the journey all over again.

Additional links:

David Fricke's original review of the album in Rolling Stone, July 2, 1987.

Reviews of the 2008 Rhino reissues of four albums by The Replacements, including 9.3 rating for Pleased To Meet Me, in Pitchfork.

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