Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Music Review - Paul Westerberg - Stereo/Mono

How many albums do I need to revisit? I recall liking this one but it was really, really rough.

Before a good friend recommended this album to me the most I’d ever heard of The Replacements was through the They Might Be Giants song “We’re The Replacements.” I knew of the legendary band but didn’t know that they practically invented both grunge and alt-rock in the mid-80s, unfortunately dissolving the way bands often do while others rode their invention to fame and lucre. While originally a democratic band, the group later came to be dominated by singer/guitarist Paul Westerberg and his penchant for writing loud, sloppy, enthusiastic, punk-inspired rock and countrified ballads.

Stereo/Mono combines both of these disparate musical worlds by surgically splitting them onto two discs.

“Mono” is recorded by Paul’s altar ego, Grandpaboy, an ornery, beer-on-cereal, aging rocker who specializes in straight-ahead rockers full of raw, bluesy yet melodic songs. Known for his disdain of modern recording technology, the 11 ragged tracks of “Mono” were recorded in Paul’s basement in mono, usually with Paul unconscious upstairs with a concussion arising from a scratched guitar to the back of the head. Everything is run through an old Fender amp, according to the liner notes, “recorded poorly, played in a hurry, with sweaty hands.” Grandpaboy’s made-for-rock’n’roll voice and garage band guitars bang through a rough set of crunchy guitar riffs that capture the energy and inspiration of Tim-era The Replacements. Favorites include the intense and instantly likeable “Between Love & Like” and “High Time,” where a disconcerting echo gives the impression G-boy pointed his lone amp straight at a concrete wall and cut loose.

As unpolished as “Mono” is, it’s nothing compared to “Stereo.” Missed lines, room noise, tape running out in mid-verse and more, Paul started the tape rolling and captured the invigorating excitement of the first take. In the place of rowdy rock the listener is treated to sparse, soul-baring ballads containing the kind of dark, melancholy hooks and crusty, tearful vocals only Westerberg could write. “Baby learns to crawl watching daddy’s skin” is merely world-weary voice, guitar and a gentle accordion. “Only Lie Worth Telling” is a resigned confession of love, or perhaps not, with a single guitar and two-part vocal harmony. With song titles like “Dirt to Mud,” “No Place For You,” “Call That Gone?” and “Let the Bad Times Roll,” this is obviously an album to accompany heartbreak and loneliness.

Like the mildew of the basement where recorded, these intentionally unfinished songs need time to grow on you. The first listen or two might not sink in, but suddenly one lyric with speak to you and then a flawed guitar melody will remind you of sadder times and before long you realize that this coarse collection contains the dangerous nucleus of rock n’ roll, quivering and bloody from it’s birth, and you can’t help but to love this wretched runt.

First published 2003 in WhatzUp.

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