Revisiting: 14 Songs

Background:

I got into The Replacements too late. I had to, really, they split up before I was eleven… What I mean is that they’re one of those bands that when I finally did get into them I hungrily devoured the lot and couldn’t believe that I’d left it so long to be hearing these songs. They’re a band that cast a long shadow and I’d heard more about them and their influence before I’d even heard a note of their music.

In fact, my first introduction was via the two Paul Westerberg solo tracks on the Singles soundtrack*. Having made the connection between singer and former band I went back, then forward into Westerberg’s solo discography.

14_songs_paul_westerberg_album_-_cover_artConsidered by many as pioneers of the alt-rock scene and with a legacy that’s at odds with the success they achieved during their run, The Replacements blew out of Minneapolis in 1979 as punk rock band whose début album, Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash, was a raw, raucous affair but, by the release of the follow up, Hootenany, the band was quickly evolving and songs like ‘Within Your Reach‘ marked the way forward as elements of blues, folk and chiming pop were bought to the fore along with Westerberg’s insightful and maturing song-writing skills. The difference between ‘Kids Don’t Follow‘ and the beautiful ‘Achin’ To Be‘ was massive.

Success wasn’t to be theirs, though. As much as they may have been at the forefront of the alt-rock scene, the self-destructive nature of the band meant that by the time the world started to pay attention, they were already imploding and they’re remembered more for potential than for breaking through. Poor production, famously disastrous live shows and TV appearances and internal strife meant that 1990’s All Shook Down would be their final album. That album was originally intended to be Paul Westerberg’s first solo album and, as such, features predominantly session musicians. The label talked him into making it a Replacements album. It would be three years before his first solo album would arrive…

The band (well, Tommy Stinson and Paul Westerberg) would reform 22 years later for a series of live shows, a victory lap for the praise and recognition they’d received after their split. There were a few abortive attempts at recording but Westerberg’s heart wasn’t in it and during the final shows he’d decorate his t-shirts with giant letters, eventually spelling out the missive: I HAVE ALWAYS LOVED YOU. NOW I MUST WHORE MY PAST.

14 Songs:

So, on a bit of a Bruce break**, I flicked as randomly as possible through my iTunes and landed on the brilliant ‘Runaway Wind’ from 14 Songs, which lead to digging out the CD and spending a few days with it in the car for the first time in a long time.

While it’s not exactly a masterpiece, it’s bloody good and starts with a run of four great songs, kicking off with a highlight, ‘Knockin’ On Mine’:

Don Was was a big fan of this album and would play it daily while recording The Rolling Stones’ Voodoo Lounge. I can get that, I love the guitar tones on this album and there’s a few on here that are clearly indebted to the Stones – this, the loose grove of ‘Dice Behind Your Shades’ and ‘Silver Naked Ladies‘ whose great instrumentation, bluesy guitar, honky-tonk piano (courtesy of Ian McLagan) and outright Jagger impression are so obvious I’d lay money on Westerberg having done a Jagger Shuffle*** dance in the studio. It’s a shame the lyrics are on the cack side. Don Was would produce Westerberg’s third solo effort and told him that Keith Richards would spend each morning cranking ‘Knockin’ On Mine’ out at full volume.

It’s assumed that ‘World Class Fad’ is about Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain… There’s an oft-commented upon similarity between the pair’s bands and Courtney Love was a big Replacements fan, her band often murdering covering ‘Unsatisfied‘. Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes**** had said “Yeah, Nevermind is a great Replacements record” which must’ve really cheesed Cobain. In the liner notes to the Westerberg’s Best Of (the brilliantly titled Besterberg) he slyly comments that “someone very famous thought it was about him” neither denying or confirming that it was… if that’s the case then “You wax poetic about things pathetic, as long as you look so cute” must have stung a bit. It’s a great tune though.

There was always a dichotomy in The Replacements between the soft and the hard. Westerberg has surmised it as “Sometimes you just love the little acoustic songs, and other times you want to crank the goddamn amp up, and those two parts of me are forever entwined.” That meant songs like ‘Here Comes A Regular’ rubbed shoulders with ‘Bastards of Young’ on Tim and the same is true in his early solo work though, free from the burden of being in a ‘punk’ band, there’s not so much hesitancy to bring out the acoustics or slower material.

‘Runaway Wind’ – for example is a great tune. Originally written for and turned down by Robin Zander, it’s vocal was recorded in just one take and features a brilliant Westerberg lyric: “You trade your telescope for a keyhole, Make way for the grey that’s in your brown, as dreams make way for plans, see ya watch life from the stands.”

Elsewhere tracks like ‘Even Here We Are’ and ‘Black Eyed Susan‘ are delicate, gentle acoustic numbers whose lo-fi production choices make them sound like lost, dusted-off gems sandwiched as they are between glossier sounding tunes and ‘Things’ is a delightfully sloppy yet endearing number. ‘Black Eyed Susan’ was recorded in Westerberg’s kitchen and the sound and lack of success in capturing a better take meant it made the album while ‘Things’ showed that even in his romantic tunes, Westerberg could add a tinge of sadness: “I could use some breathing room but I’m still in love with you.”

Even the best Replacements albums had some outright howlers buried in amongst the gold (I really don’t think anyone is going to make a case for ‘Lay It Down Clown’) and on 14 Songs that particular number is ‘A Few Minutes Of Silence’ – if the album had been called 13 Songs the track wouldn’t have been missed.

With the comic, cynical take on plastic surgery, ‘Mannequin Shop‘ (“You look bitching you look taut, I`m a itchin’ to know what was bought?”) oddly sequenced between the harder, more straight-ahead and solid rockers ‘Something Was Me’ and ‘Down Love’ I can’t help but think that, with better attention to the running order and a tiny bit more selectiveness on the tunes, 14 Songs would’ve gone from being bloody good to great in no time. It’s got a real band dynamic that’s often missing on singer-songwriter albums, a relaxed vibe and finds just the right balance between the two-sides of Westerberg’s writing, wrapping up his romanticism, wry lyrics and self-depreciating humour in a very strong collection of songs.

It wasn’t to be, though. Much like his former band, the album generated some strong reviews but failed to catch on commercially. By the time he released his solo record, the bands who he had influenced and shared listing with on the Singles soundtrack were getting the attention. From here there would be two more major-label albums before he’d ditch working with producers and go the home-recording route where he’d go on to pen some of his best work, even if not so many heard it (see 2008’s 49:00, if you can) before, following the 2012-15 Replacements reunion,  forming The I Don’t Cares with Juliana Hatfield. Their album, Wild Stab, is well worth a listen, too and I’ll finish off with a tune from it…. “Dreams I had before are now too bored to even show up.”

 

*If we’re talking best movie soundtracks (which I probably will one day) then this one will be way up the top of the list.

**It’s a lot of fun but I’m now about to hit the Top Five (which means I’ve already cleared fifteen) and could do with cleansing my aural palate a bit.

***We’ve all done it. I even had ‘Mixed Emotions’ played at my wedding so I could make use of the wooden dance floor this way.

****Is this really the first time I’ve mentioned The Black Crowes here? Given how near-perfect those first three albums were I’m very surprised…

Revisiting: Collapse Into Now

Revisiting…..

Since he was old enough to pull himself up and stand holding onto the shelves, my son would reach into the CD shelves that line our hall and pull out an album (or a handful) while I put on my shoes and zipped his coat of a morning. Initially because that’s what toddlers do but subsequently because he’d learn that when he thrust one into my hands odds were that I’d take it out with us and we’d listen to it during the drive – him to the child-minder and me onwards to the office – and the idea of choosing the music for the day appealed to him greatly.

Aside from the fact that he’s already forming favourites and calling out requests (“where’s that Dinosaur Jr?” “Foo Fighters please”) from the back seat before he’s three, it’s meant that as his physical development allowed him to do more than repeatedly grab clusters from the M/N area – he’s been selecting albums that I wouldn’t otherwise do so for myself and, in many instances, hadn’t listened to for years and giving me the impetus to spin things I hadn’t for some time.

Hence; revisiting.

Collapse Into Now

In 1997, a couple of years after a suffering a brain aneurysm on stage in Switzerland, and as the band were due to commence sessions for a new album, drummer Bill Berry told his band mates that he was leaving REM. In the seventeen years he’d sat on his drum stool behind Messrs Stip, Buck and Mills the four-piece from Athens, Georgia had gone from underground, college-scene heroes, broken through with Document and achieved major-label success and sales with Out of Time, Automatic For The People and assured permanent rotation wherever music videos are played with clips for ‘Everybody Hurts’, ‘Losing My Religion’ and, to their own chagrin, ‘Shiny Happy People’.

After announcing his intentions Berry added a caveat; he would only vacate his stool if the others agreed to carry on. As such, the publicity for the band’s next album Up often contained Stipe’s “I guess a three-legged dog is still a dog. It just has to learn to run differently” quote.

I’d gotten quite into REM at this point in time. While I’d played ‘Drive’ on the jukebox at a holiday camp one summer to the point that the guy working there ended up pulling the plug (to be fair he at least gave me my 50p back even if his ‘I think that song breaks it’ lie was weakly delivered0 – it was New Adventures In Hi-Fi that I held and still hold as a great album (‘Departure’, ‘Bittersweet Me’, ‘How The West Was Won and Where It Got Us’, ‘Electrolite’??!) As such Up was purchased by me on day of release. Sadly Berry’s departure also marked the point I pretty much started losing interest. Up has some good songs (3.5 at last count), Reveal was too stodgy and heavy-handed – and marked the last REM album I’d buy for some time – and Around The Sun (or what I’ve heard of it) had all the punch and staying power of a kitten’s fart. Save for the (Berry-co-written) single ‘Bad Day’ from the Warner Bros comp it seemed like the now-three-piece from Athens, Georgia weren’t going to be finding rotation on my stereo again.

But then…. perhaps tired of the inertia and lukewarm reception surrounding their output – Around the Sun had shifted under 240,000 copies in the US – and enthused by working with (finally) a new producer, REM engaged again and, working under tighter pressure and deadlines, released Accelerate; an aggressively upbeat and purposeful album that was, as one critic said, the “sound of a band having enjoyed a good word with themselves”.

For all it’s praise – and I’ve still not added it to my own shelves – Accelerate was a very single-focus album and lacked the subtleties that enthused their earlier and better tracks. I don’t think there was a single mandolin lick to be found. Still, it made me listen again so that, in 2011, when word of a new album and lyric videos for ‘Überlin’ and ‘Mine Smell Like Honey’ dropped, Collapse Into Now was one I bought on day of release.

Until this last week I hadn’t listened to it for a couple of years but each and every time I hear this album I find more to enjoy – that naggingly catchy riff that kicks off proceedings with ‘Discoverer’, the vocal power of ‘Oh My Heart’, the breaking out of that joyous chorus of ‘Mine Smell Like Honey’ or Eddie Vedder’s contribution to ‘It Happened Today’, the blast that is ‘All The Best’ (in which Stipe portends their plans with “it’s just like me to overstay my welcome”) or the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it joy of ‘That Someone Is You’:

Collapse Into Now may not be perfect but then no REM album is 100% (‘Star Me Kitten’, anyone? No, didn’t think so). It is their most consistent and successfully multi-faceted album for a long time and one in which the sheer weight of positives and the quality of the production outnumber its weaker points. Rather than simply play it fast as they’d done with Accelerate, the songs on this album are given space to breath, there are textures that harken back to their earlier work without sounding like re-treads and there’s an overwhelming sense that, once again, they’re enjoying what they do.

Once you’ve reclaimed your reputation – what do you do, though? With their deal with Warner Bros at an end, would they sign to an independent or will they make another massive-money deal? Will they continue this upward trend in quality with another album? With a seemingly-rekindled joy of playing live will they tour?

But they didn’t go for any of that. For it turns out that when they got together to record Collapse Into Now they did so with the idea of  “going out on a high note.” And, in September 2011 (just five months after the album’s release) REM announced their decision to call it a day. With Collapse Into Now, to my ears at least and this is my blog after all, they did just that. After all, I doubt people would be clamouring for more if the last think they’d released had been ‘Leaving New York’.