A subdivision of ACIDEMIC

Friday, February 5, 2010

Oh, those drunken Replacements.

In "Treatment Bound," singer Paul Westerberg explains the Replacement's touring strategy as follows: "The first thing we do when we finally show up / Get shit-faced drunk / Try to sober up." For legions of impressionable punk rock youth, these were words to live by. The Replacements were like the male equivalent of Courtney Love, one went to their show in guilty hopes of seeing a train wreck, and more than half the time they delivered, being too drunk to remember their own songs and having to revert to out of tune covers to which Westerberg would make up the words. If they did manage the "sobering up" part they might deliver a searing, moving, furious set of rock songs that fell somewhere between hardcore punk and what would eventually be known as alternative rock (Nirvana's Kurt Cobain originally drew Westerberg comparisons with his anguished vocal style and major label-defying antics. I wasn't alone in my first thought on hearing Cobain's voice being "Hey, this guy sounds just like Paul Westerberg!")

The story of the 'mats (as their fans dubbed them) begins in the punk scene of 1979 Minneapolis. Bob Stinson was lead guitarist and the heaviest drinker. His 14-year old brother Tommy was on bass and their friend Chris Mars played drums. They were a hardcore punk band when Westerberg joined them but he brought in gallons of emotion-wracked songwriting talent and they split the difference. They got signed to Twin Tone, and proceeded to release a series of furious, somewhat sloppy albums, the straight up (but amusing) thrash of Sorry Ma (Forgot to Take out the Trash) followed by an EP (The Replacements Stink) and then the delightfully ramshackle Hootenanny.

Their big breakthrough came with 1984's Let it Be, the album that invented modern alternative rock six years too soon. They went over to a major label (Sire) for Tim. But then the elder Stinson was kicked out for drug and alcohol problems (which must have been pretty bad by that point, considering who was kicking him out). Pleased to Meet Me and Don't Tell a Soul followed, without Stinson and with production values slick enough to make their small but loyal fan base accuse them of selling out. Their final album, All Shook Down, was a step forward to Westerberg's solo career, with sparse acoustic arrangements and anguished confessional lyrics, it still didn't sell and the band split up.

Westerberg idled until Cameron Crowe exhumed him for the soundtrack to his film Singles. Though they've long since gone their separate ways, the status of the Replacements as the drunken stepfathers of alternative rock remains forever assured, and if I wasn't in recovery at the moment, I'd drink to that.


A typically ferocious and witty entry in the low budget indie LP pressings of the early 80s, untrained ears may be unable to differentiate it from other thrash-punk albums of the period, still Westerberg's songwriting gifts show through after a couple of listens. "Shut Up" and "I Hate Music"  would become thrash (or slam-dancing as it was known then) anthems, but there's also some real rock and roll heart in the wrenching "Shiftless When Idle" and "Kick Your Door Down." Looking forward to their future rock balladry there's "Johnny's Gonna Die," an ode to downward-spiraling junkie guitar legend Johnny Thunders (obviously an inspiration to their own booze-addled stage antics). "Raised in the City" manages to be both a satire of and a homage to Kiss-style rock, an avenue they'd travel down further in subsequent albums.


You can hear the merry slurs in the vocals here, such as the barely standing up messiness of the title track, but the forward-looking track is "Die Within Your Reach," a somewhat sappy ballad whose click-drum track makes one suspect Westerberg did it on his own without the support of his punk rock bandmates. Nonetheless the germs of their future alt rock sound is here, with the boozy field recording "Treatment Bound" and the vividly realized punk of "Color Me Impressed" and "Fuck our School" balance it all out, if you call drunken staggering balanced.
LET IT BE (1984)

This classic 1984 life-changer ignited the soul of every alienated teen who bought it, myself included, and marked a turning point in punk rock and has been celebrated on stage and screen and print as soon as we grew up. Though there are still several punk tracks on the record ("We're Coming Out," "Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out") the key element here is the aching emotionally tormented rock of "Unsatisfied," "Answering Machine" and "Sixteen Blue" in which songwriter/vocalist Paul Westerberg made the band drop all their drunken punk pretensions and expose the tormented anger, hope and longing he, and everyone else, was really feeling in their mid-80s late teenage punk rock moment. The cathartic end result of all that soul searching is the jangly "I Will Dare," the piano-driven, daring (for the time) "Androgynous" and a Kiss cover; "Black Diamond." Most prescient is "Seen Your Video," in which Westerberg rants about the evils of the still young MTV, little knowing how it would soon co-opt the genre of music he and his contemporaries were at that very moment creating. Sure it's all over the map style-wise, but then you realize the alchemical change has occurred: the punk and metal of the Stinsons and the rock-and-cry gut ache of Westerberg had been mixed and bottled together into something brand new; it would be only a matter of fermentation time, about seven years, and the keg would explode; MTV would begin playing Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" around the clock.

TIM (1985)

The follow-up to the Replacement's groundbreaking Let it Be marks a significant turning point not just in their career but in the history of alternative music.  Westerberg had come fully into his own, and confidently goes deep into a flow of gut-wrenching ballads, gut-wrenching love songs, and gut-wrenching anthems of angst and alienation. "Bastards of Young," "A Little Mascara" and "Hold My Life," howl with beautiful rage. "Left of the Dial" refers to bands whose only airplay comes from college radio stations (typically at the extreme left of the FM radio dial) and became an instant catchphrase for indie-hood that survives today, as does Westerberg's succinct description of his generation: "Innocence wont claim us / We got no wars to name us." The freewheeling grungy romance of "On the Bus" and the clap-along "Waitress in the Sky" looked forward to the even more innocuous Westerberg solo career but are here catchy, soulful and worthwhile. The final song, "Here Comes a Regular" is a heartbreaking ballad of one slob's failure to escape the dreary all-consuming solace of the local tavern. The band with a reputation for being boozy and unprofessional onstage was realizing the cold, scary future awaiting them if they couldn't stop their downward spirals. This was their first record for a major label and subsequent releases would find them attempting to be more commercial in a bid for crossover success. They didn't make it, but in the passing years, Tim has become a towering milestone whose lyrics are sacred texts to many of today's alternative rock titans.


The first album to be released after the firing of guitarist Bob Stinson, this album alienated a lot of fans (including me) with its unapologetically commercial new direction (Stinson was obviously the force holding Westerberg's more radio-friendly urges in check). Nonetheless, it has stood the test of time and was an obvious precursor Nirvana's Nevermind. In fact, the cover of that album--the baby swimming after a dollar bill on a fishing hook--is clearly inspired by the cynicism of the cover here, of a grungy torn up sleeve shaking hands with a rolexed corporate suit. Westerberg was a big Alex Chilton fan and the album was scheduled to be produced by the same guy who did a few Chilton classics, but things fell through. You can hear Westerberg's Chilton-esque aspirations running full force now though, on tracks like "Alex Chilton" (!), and the acoustic ballad, "Skyway." The rest of the band shows they can still rock hard with "Red Red Wine" and "Shooting Dirty Pool."


In a last ditch effort to break into mainstream radio play, the Replacements allowed the slathering on the slick synths, giving the AOR guys that empty hollowness they associated with crossover appeal, and alienating whomever hadn't given up after Pleased to Meet Me. Sales still didn't meet expectations, losing even fans of their old stuff (like me). Luckily, time has been kind to this album; if it had come out around three or four years later it may have been a grunge classic instead of a reviled example of corporate concessions. Anthems of youth alienation abound despite itself, including the classic "We'll Inherit the Earth" and "I'll Be You." "Rock and Roll Ghost" is one of Westerberg's gut-wrenchingly honest ballads, this one an intensely personal autobiography about a life possibly wasted as a rock and roll also-ran. "Darlin' One" stings with the ache of unfulfilled romantic yearning. There is no doubting that the band was reaching for mainstream success with the desperation of a repentant sinner, but they didn't reach it, and for that this album's prescient songs are all the more tragic.


This stripped-down affair is a big step forward from the slick AOR-bid, Don't Tell a Soul. Recorded with an array of session musicians while the band was in mid-disintegration, this is was originally to be vocalist Paul Westerberg's debut solo album, in the tradition of his longtime hero, Alex Chilton. The title track is my favorite, a lonesome blues with an earthy, almost Tom Waits-y vibe. If the Mats had been a breakthrough success, who knows what these songs would have been about? As it is, their unflinching honesty towards a life misspent and opportunities squandered makes for great wallowing in your-lack-of-fame listening. This was Westerberg giving up on mainstream success at long last, and turning his back on the hard rock limitations of the band. From now on they wouldn't have old Mr. Westerberg to kick around anymore, and with that he was off on his path of introspective soul-tearing angst, honing the mope rock he helped invent right up to the closing track, presciently titled, "The Last."

(originally written for Amp Camp.com, 2001, now long gone)

Monday, February 1, 2010

Liz Phair: Siren, Sinner, Sister, Sell-Out

(From my discography entry in the now defunct Amp Camp, c. 2001):

Liz Phair: Miss Popular, the queen of the indie prom, the cute Chicago girl who can actually play guitar and write and sing good songs, who lives alone in the dorm room down the hall and only the coolest kids aren't afraid to talk to, the girl that all the other girls hate, who spends her nights alone with a four track and a bong, composing songs about how promiscuous she was in high school and would like to be now. Talking dirty and driving the boys crazy, she's a mix of droll songwriting talent and sex addiction all wrapped up in a cute-as-a-button package. My friends who have friends who know her from school say she's simultaneously using the nymph boy-eater posing as a gimmick and at the same time is far more voracious and crazy than she pretends to be, while also being a closet "normal" -- in other words, they don't know anything about her either.

A brilliant lyricist and notoriously self-conscious performer, Liz Phair was a package no sulky  indie boy or shopworn punkette with an ear for outsider genius could resist. Her debut album, Exile in Guyville landed her the top spot on the 1994 Village Voice Pazz and Jop Critic's poll, but the studio-produced follow up, Whip Smart, was accused of being too mainstream. Word was, she let the producers and studio musicians boss her around, and then--to make matters worse--she went and got married and had a baby. 

Hearts lay broken everywhere.

But she surprised many a few years later with whitechocolatepsacegg, wherein she looked upon motherhood with a mix of horror and good-natured sarcasm, much to our relief. BUT, then she decided to "sell out" after all, and signed with a major label, slutted-up her costumes and brought in airbrush artists and make-up technicians to remould her in a Britney-cum-MILF mode. 30something fans dropped off by the droves, to be replaced by teenybopper girls (or so she and her new label hoped). But hey, she's on a journey, and maturity has been very kind to her, replacing her precocious cuteness with a sexuality that could drop a rhino at 30 paces. Don't hate her 'cuz she's beautiful or because she sold out, hate her because she writes brilliant songs without even trying, and suddenly wants to spend more time with her stupid son than us.


Supposedly a feminist "answer" to the macho swagger of the Rolling Stones' 1972 Exile on Main Street, this sprawling masterpiece showed how one girl and her pet four-track could do more musical damage than your mama and all her biker friends after a case of tequila and an eightball of crank. She potty-mouths off to the older boys that may have once taken advantage of her in tracks like "Fuck and Run," and "Help Me, Mary," while occasionally getting all effortlessly catchy, as in "Never Said" wherein her nasal voice makes it sound like she's been (gasp) SMOKING!  Then in "Canary" and "Flower" she twists the knife all the way in, revealing the pig's blood-soaked telekenetic Carrie underneath the coy homecoming queen veneer. Raw and unhinged, the low-fi trappings here may alienate new listeners, but this album is the one that knocked the rock-and-roll boys club forever and completely on its ass. Miss it at your own risk.  A


The critical adulation Phair received for her Exile in Guyville led to the studio-recorded follow-up getting some major label distribution and even an MTV-friendly video for the single, "Supernova." Despite cries of sell-out (even then!) from some of the hardcore indie mopers this is a fine collection of songs, much more coherent and resonant than many of the lesser tracks on Guyville. "Jealousy" benefits from an addictive, propulsive rhythm as its narrator goes snooping through her lovers drawer of ex-girlfriend photos, echoing the co-dependent yowling of Alannis Morrisette's Jagged Little Pill released the same year but in a way that revealed far more apathy - like Phair's deliberately nurturing the jealous anger in herself just so she can heighten her high. Other stand-out tracks are "May Queen" and "Crater Lake," with its now classic line, "Well, look at me / I'm frightening my friends." If the sexually frank opening track, "Chopsticks," seems as if she's talking dirty just to show she can still shock prurient ears, that "Crater Lake" sentiment gets to the real truth underlying our socially conditioned reactions to such behavior: It's "cute" for girls to talk dirty, but if they start telling the real truth about things people just get start throwing rocks. Thank God that Phair still isn't afraid to do exactly that, no matter who she frightens. B+


Recorded post-child, Phair's third album received some great notices as a mature, edgy, even experimental departure for the indie princess of profanity. Sardonic power chords and spooky prog keyboards count among the many inspired flourishes, showing the whole child thing gave the lass some time to think and expand on her sound in her own weird way. The album kicks off with three instant back to back classics, culminating with the single, "Polyester Bride," a Beck-like send-up of 1970's AOR radio that confused a lot of critics who "didn't get the joke" (or maybe I'm just so in love with her I gave it the benefit of the doubt.) Then there was the infectious electro-bounce of "Headache" and her use of different narrative voices to reconfigure herself as a Randy Newman-style storyteller ("Shitloads of Money" comes off as a somehow less ironic sequel to "It's Money that Matters"). The sheer exuberant catchiness of the optimistic "What Makes You Happy" and the folky lilt of "Uncle Alvarez" show Phair as an artist spreading her wings in a way that makes the alleged "sell out" of her following album less shocking in hindsight, but nonetheless, here we go...A-

 LIZ PHAIR (2003)

Shocking! The queen of low fi (who hadn't really been lo-fi since her debut) drops all her pretensions and makes a distinctly unlady-like grab for the big gold ring of Top 40 girlpop. Slick production team the Matrix, who helped Avril Lavaigne, here work the same mojo on several tracks, including Phair's first chart-breaker, the irresistible "Why Can't I." The many-bridged psychosexual boasting of "Extraordinary" is a definite shocker with production so slick it is beyond slick. But then the smoke clears and all the fuss turns out to be a little unfounded and we start revisiting all the old Phair neighborhoods, exploring her favorite topics such as oral sex ("H.W.C.") and the seduction of impressionable babysitters (this time from the POV of the mother, "Rock Me").  In the heartbreaking "Little Digger" she explains to her 5-year old son why all these strange men keep appearing in her bed. In a way she could be addressing her whole dejected indie boy fan base, who she knew in advance were going to receive this album with angry, tear-stained dejection. From now on, we would have to share mommy with the whole wide world. She hoped! C-

Much as I hate to admit it, this cute cover makes me weak at the knees every time I see it, but Phair and I are through, finito, so there's no more listening and trying to like stuff and then getting my feeling's hurt as I realize she's not singing to my demographic anymore... she's singing for the suits, the 'tweeners and the void. Alas, a lot of people agreed with me and the last I knew they weren't even able to give Somebody's Miracle away... probably that helped prompt the career decision to do a bells-and-whistles re-release of Exile to see if all her dorky fans will now accept her as a mid-90s nostalgia act instead of alternative's Mata Hari. For me, the paint still drying on the cement floor where my heart once lay, it's gonna take another 8 years.

BUT, damn can she sizzle with a good photographer and sultry poutfit. Let's take a little pictorial walkthrough and see how one talented, my-age indie rocker goes from 80s high school girl to bitingly witty alt-rock princess to just another airbrushed Maxim boytoy:


I'm not debating her third-wave feminist right to sell out and get paid but... sheesh, there's a line between the Madonna "use it cause you got it but also deconstruct it" and the merely "use it because the publicity agents flatter your vanity." Funny that in posting all this, mainly because I found my old Liz Phair discography work from 2001 for Amp Camp, I'm now back in swooning love with this edgy MILF icon, and all the accompanying jealous pique that love entails.