Sunday, April 3, 2016

Album Reviews # 63 The Replacements - Let It Be

I'll review Let It Be now. A couple of weeks after I had a Replacements day on here and posted eight or nine things related to the band. In the meantime, I've ordered the extensive and recently published biography of the band Trouble Boys, which should arrive on my doormat in the next couple of days and which I'll then, doubtless, devour.

Let It Be is surely the band's definitive statement. While Tommy Stinson, the most troubled soul, (the biography is aptly named because every song the band ever recorded sounds 'troubled' in some way) of a band of troubled souls, was still in the group. It's also the stepping stone between their first, punkish releases and the record that brought them to a major record label from which point they tried to maintain an awkward stance, attempting to hold on to their principles, outsider swagger and early drive while deciding if they really wanted to shift records and really make it, a battle that was ultimately unsustainable.

Let It Be means a lot more to me now than it did when I first bought it in 1984 on the year of its release. Then it was just one, admittedly a very good one, of a number of records that I bought on the recommendation of R.E.M. as they first emerged, so smitten was I with that group at that point in time.

'How young are you? How old am I? Let's count the rings around my eyes...'

At that stage though much it was too raw for my developing tastes. I liked what I liked, the obvious tracks, and skipped the rest. Now I think it's best listened to as a whole, because that's what I think gives the best picture of the band as a whole, with all their contradictions. 

If you go on YouTube there are numerous clips of people describing what The Replacements meant to them, Americans mostly, although the band did make a small mark in the UK, with bands like The Senseless Things aping their sound and attitude a few years down the line. But generally, The Replacements were an American thing, and spoke loudly of an American Mid-West experience of frustration, boredom and a burning drive to get out, always underpinned by a fatal pessimism that perhaps you were doomed never to escape your roots and where you were from.

'Yeah I know I look like hell. I smoke and drink and I'm feeling swell.'

Most of all the imprint that The Replacements made played a significant part in paving the road to Nirvana and all they managed to achieve. Although, to my knowledge, Kurt Cobain never really championed, or even spoke about the band, The Replacements are undoubtedly there in Nirvana's look, sound, attitude and again perpetually troubled demeanor. Courtney Love for example has talked about the importance of Unsatisfied, the first song on Let It Be's second side and also covered it.

What The Replacements meant to her and so many others, (you can watch Tommy Ramone, Husker Du bassist Greg Norton, Babes in Toyland's Kate Bjelland and the singers of The Hold Steady and The Decembrists among numerous others, talking about the influence of the band), is most of all a guiding influence and inspiration to what they went on to do or were doing at the time. The Replacements indicated that there was a way out, even if the themselves were never quite sure they had the strength to make it or able to locate it for themselves.

'One more chance to get it all wrong. One more night to get it half right...'

The record sets off with I Will Dare, one of the band's ultimate moments, a statement of intent and defiance, perhaps a pledge to a potential lover or partner in crime. It's the records Pop-est moment, an indicator that lead singer and songwriter Paul Westerberg was beginning to master the form and could take them beyond hometown Minneapolis. Aided by a guitar solo from R.E.M's Peter Buck, a friend of the band, who was also mooted for a while to produce the album before the band chose to take the reins themselves.

'Open wide. You little brat...'

Next three songs though, Favorite Thing, We're Comin' Out and Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out, show the band to be an altogether a rougher and tougher proposition than R.E.M. Punkish and frayed, always armed with a resigned but angry humour, full of  smalltown pain. Influenced for sure by their record collections, Tommy is surely a nod to The Ramones' Beat On The Brat, but constantly aware that this, after all is not their lot. This is not New York City. Like The Smiths across the pond in Manchester there is always a sense that they fear their coat-tails will get caught in the door.

'Tomorrow, who's gonna fuss...'

And then Androgynous, the album's second great example of Westerberg's nascent songwriting skills. Another mission statement of difference, the band were often described as not caring, it was an attitude they liked to give off themselves with their general drunkenness and sloppy attitude, but their great contrariness was that of course they did and nowhere more so than here. Gender difference was something that had been touched on before by heterosexual bands, most notably by The New York Dolls and would be again, once more with Nirvana, The Replacements, notably Bob Stinson were known to perform in dresses, an upraised middle finger to the jocks. But here it's just a beautifully crafted song, speaking of a sensitivity and bruised hurt that pervades the whole record.

'They've got you under their thumb...'

And from here to the Kiss cover that closes the side, Black Diamond. Essentially another 'F' You, but this time to a different audience, aimed squarely at the Punk purists for whom such an act would be strictly off the menu. But that was The Replacements. Known for covering, or desecrating Sammy Hagar, Bob Stinson was a huge Yes fan and became increasingly uncomfortable playing the ballads Westerberg began to come up with increasingly.

'Look me in the eye and tell me. That I'm satisfied...'

To Unsatisfied and Side Two. This track for me is the band's best and a song I return to again and again, and which never fails to evoke in me particular emotions and mood. It's a loser's anthem, but more than that, it's an utterly masterfully crafted song, as good as anyone ever wrote in this medium to my ears. Here's Jonathan Donahue of Mercury Rev talking about the record. 

'This album is one of the standards of great American music. Some of the songs here are up there with some Frank Sinatra tracks, some Bing Crosby moments. Like 'Unsatisfied', for instance, that's a pop standard worthy of Billie Holiday. Again, they couldn't seem to get out of their own way for a period of time. The thing with The Replacements is if you ask Wayne Coyne, Michael Stipe or J Mascis, they were the ones that would say: "The Replacements, that would be the band to be in." They were everybody's band before they made their own band. They almost would have been what The Velvet Underground was at the time for the bands around them.'

Unsatisfied is most of all about the fear of failure, something we all have and never quite shrug off. It's also about the flawed and difficult world that we find ourselves in. It's not a song I want to live in all the time because feeling this wys all the time would be intolerable but it's a reminder of an emotion that first comes upon you in adolescence and you never entirely want to shrug off. Oh and as well as being a howl of rage it's also entirely beautiful. coated in waves of acoustic guitar! A quite flawless song from a band that was definitively flawed.

'Seen your video. We don't want to know. It's only Rock and Roll.'

From here, a song aimed squarely at the world's inadequacies to Seen Your Video, which is surely a direct response to MTV who were busily changing the musical world and the way it represented itself.  It speaks plainly for itself of The Replacements ingrained suspicion of the music industry. Again dressed in a quite wonderful arrangement of guitars. It's of its time. Here comparisons could be made again with Morrissey who was also busy railing against promo videos at the same time. Like Westerberg, a Canute on the shore trying to stop the incoming tide.

Gary's Got a Boner, a partner to Side One's Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out. A reminder of the Punk in The Replacements and their determination not to let it go. Restless brattish thrash with a metal guitar fill halfway through courtesy of Bob Stinson and a deeply disturbing lyric which I won't quote here . The sound of the band chugging down cans. They were a group that reputedly that were never the same any time you chose to see them and that's all there on the records themselves. While it makes Let It Be an indescribably disjointed, almost schizophrenic listen, these are all necessary components of the jigsaw of fragmented contradictions that made up the band. You always get the sense that by the time you get to put in the final piece it will not be there.

'Brag about things you don't understand... Everything is sexually vague. Now you're wondering to yourself if you might be gay...'

Another shift. Sixteen Blue more evidence of what Westerberg was now capable of. More bruised and sensitive adolescence and more of the influence of Alex Chilton and Big Star which pervades the album's sensitive moments. Also a quite astonishing set of melodic shifts within the song, echoes of Unsatisfied to which this serves as a little brother. Almost the sound of Westerberg letting going of his youth, while all along knowing full well that the seeds of it remain within him and will always twist at his guts deep into adulthood. A quite searing coda to the song from Bob Stinson again and then it's gone.

'Try and breathe some life into a letter...'

We've arrived at Answering Machine, the album's last track and I'm done. More pain, the record's drenched with it. Raging against the modern world, desperate to make contact, self-loathing, restless spirit, the sound of an answering machine on loop over a backtrack of massed guitars as the record draws to a close. From here, and the waves the record deservedly made the band headed towards the major labels and their uneasy, doomed shot at the mainstream, Bob Stinson drifted towards the exit, he was sacked or left in 1986. The word about The Replacements began to spread, listen to the singers of The Hold Steady and Decemberists speak eloquently about the impact the band made on them. Or else listen to The Replacements speak eloquently about themselves on here. Incredible, lyrical and melodic depths. They never sounded better. Before or since. Looking forward to that book!

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