by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
Sorry, Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash (1981, Twin/Tone)
Fair warning: if you’re only familiar with the Paul Westerberg-led band through its college-radio hits like “I Will Dare,” “Can’t Hardly Wait,” or “I’ll Be You,” you’ll likely find this debut disc completely jarring at first, if only for the simple reason that the band actually began its existence as a full-blown punk outfit a la the Ramones or the Minutemen, which means that this disc features the band hammering its way through a whopping eighteen songs, ten of which clock in at under two minutes and only two of which surpass the two-and-a-half minute mark. (“Careless” even just barely clocks in at over a minute!) It’s not just the punk stylings that make this disc so radically different from the band’s later work; Westerberg has yet at this point to really have anything all that profound or witty to say, and the lyrics to tracks like “Otto,” “Hangin’ Downtown,” and “Customer” seem laughably amateur for a guy who’d go on to write such deeply affecting songs as “Here Comes a Regular,” “Swingin’ Party,” and “Achin’ to Be.” [Sometimes the simplicity works in the songs’ favor, though, especially on the frantic “Careless,” which packs an intensity lacking in the more punk-tinged songs from the band’s final few platters.] But Westerberg’s love of pop means that the disc isn’t entirely for punk enthusiasts only, and traces of the band’s later melodicism can be found in such excellent cuts as “Kick Your Door Down,” “Shiftless When Idle,” “Takin’ a Ride,” “I’m in Trouble,” and the downright haunting “Johnny’s Gonna Die,” so there are a handful of modestly tuneful, more fully-realized songs to be savored by fans of the band’s later work – just don’t go into it expecting anything quite as pop-oriented as “Can’t Hardly Wait.”
Hootenanny (1983, Twin/Tone)
The band’s sophomore outing isn’t nearly as coherent an album piece as its predecessor (it’s too all over the place musically compared to the all-punk Sorry, Ma, trying on everything from the swing rhythms of “Lovelines” to the heavily country-tinged “Treatment Bound”) and it’s also got far too many throwaway cuts for its own good (especially “Mr. Whirly,” the R.E.M.-does-surf-rock sound of the instrumental “Buck Hill,” and the album-opening title cut), but its best moments show a band making great leaps and bounds in the maturity department. [Even the few fully-punk-tinged tunes here, like “Run It,” exhibit a bit more heart and polish than many of the equally brief songs from Sorry, Ma.] “Color Me Impressed” is the first of the band’s songs that sounds like it could genuinely fit effortlessly on the band’s later, more famous albums – it not only defines and solidifies what would become the band’s trademark sound, but it’s also the song where Westerberg finally starts to take his role as the band’s lyricist a bit more seriously and takes on a more poetic approach. The best cut of all here, however, is arguably ironically one that the rest of the band doesn’t even appear on: “Within Your Reach,” later featured on the soundtrack to the John Cusack flick Say Anything … and featuring Westerberg playing all the instruments, isn’t merely the band’s most pop-tinged moment yet but perhaps even the most hypnotic song they ever made, the rhythm track nearly resembling a gentler version of the phaser-laden guitar groove of Genesis’ “Follow You Follow Me.”
Let It Be (1984, Twin/Tone)
It’s hard to think that an album that routinely shows up on lists of the greatest albums ever made yet contains cuts with titles like “Gary’s Got a Boner” and “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” (actually a much better song than you would ever suspect) and includes a cover of Kiss’ “Black Diamond” could be anything other than overrated, but this album amazingly does live up to all the hype. The band still hasn’t completely abandoned its punk roots (“We’re Coming Out” is as raucous a song as the band has crafted yet, while “Favorite Thing” is simply a catchier and slightly more pop-friendly version of the blink-and-you-missed-it tunes from Sorry, Ma and could have fit easily onto that record), but it’s mining more musical territory here and with a much greater level of seriousness than on the irony-heavy Hootenanny – heck, the now-iconic single “I Will Dare” (featuring Westerberg taking up the mandolin, while R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck shows up alongside Bob Stinson to play a solo) even swings, Chris Mars immediately making a case for himself as one of the most gifted and versatile drummers in all of ‘80s alt-rock. But while “I Will Dare” certainly lit up college-radio switchboards all over the country in 1984, what really set this disc apart from its two predecessors was that Westerberg wasn’t simply writing catchier songs than before – he’d also become sufficiently comfortable as a composer and lyricist both to venture into more thoughtful territory and even try his hand at several ballads, all of which are fabulous. “Androgynous” was perhaps the most groundbreaking in the lot, but “Unsatisfied” (featuring what is arguably Westerberg’s most deeply emotional vocal performance yet) is even better and spoke out to a countless number of disenchanted youth, while the criminally underrated “Sixteen Blue” (equal parts alt-country and Byrds-like jangle rock) is Westerberg’s prettiest melody to this point. By the time you get to the fade-out of “Answering Machine” (which is ingeniously arranged in a way that makes you think the rest of the band will kick in at any given moment, although it never does, which just adds to the tension of the cut), there’s no longer any doubt that you’ve just taken in one of the best albums in rock history.
Tim (1985, Sire)
Making the jump to a major label didn’t change the band much. Instead, they released their second undisputed classic in a row. Tommy Erdelyi (aka Tommy Ramone from The Ramones) helms the band’s debut for Sire, and he doesn’t tinker greatly with the band’s sound – the band still sounds nearly every bit as raw here as they did on Let It Be; rather, he gets the band to simply play down its more jokey tendencies – the result being that there are no novelties like “Gary’s Got a Boner” here, merely an occasional forgettable filler cut like “I’ll Buy” or “Lay It Down Clown” – and emphasize Westerberg’s newfound lyrical maturity. While some could conceivably argue that it makes Tim a less fun disc than Let It Be, there’s still plenty of fun to be found within the music here, whether you’re talking about the lazy acoustic groove of “Waitress in the Sky” (essentially a much cooler version of Johnny Rivers’ “Mountain of Love”), the toe-tapping Nick Lowe-like retro-rock of “Kiss Me on the Bus,” the college-radio anthem “Left of the Dial,” the deceptively complex “Hold My Life,” or, perhaps best of all, the sludgy-but-blistering rocker “Bastards of Young,” easily one of guitarist Bob Stinson’s greatest moments with the band. (Sadly, this would end up being his final album with the group.) But, like Let It Be before it, the band is just as effective here when it slips into more contemplative mode, and you’d have to be a stoic to not be moved by the ballads “Swingin’ Party” and “Here Comes a Regular,” both of which stand tall on the list of Westerberg’s greatest sets of lyrics.
Pleased to Meet Me (1987, Sire)
It tends not to be quite as highly regarded as Let It Be or Tim (likely due to a combination of the absence of Bob Stinson and the more elaborate production brought to the proceedings by Jim Dickinson), but the band’s second album for Sire contains no more filler than either of those discs and is a bit underrated for that reason. Fans of the band’s punk beginnings might have lamented the more commercial turn the band took on this disc, but cuts like “I Don’t Know” show the band still hasn’t completely lost its ability to thrash – or its sense of humor, for that matter – even if they now do so using catchier choruses. (Heck, even the haunting suicide-themed track “The Ledge” is built around a surprisingly infectious hook.)Even more impressively, the band has yet to replace Bob Stinson at this point and opts here to carry on as a trio, bassist brother Tommy Stinson taking on a greater role within the group, co-writing several tracks and even unusually sharing guitar duties on “Can’t Hardly Wait.” Westerberg’s melodies are just as sharp here as they were on Tim, if not perhaps even stronger, and even non-singles like the rockers “Valentine” (with its great opening line “You wish upon a star that turns into a plane”) or “Never Mind” and the lovely acoustic quickie “Skyway” are overflowing with hooks, while the cowbell-laden driving rock of “Alex Chilton” (a tribute to the former frontman of the Box Tops and the less famous but even more influential Big Star) is as fun a single as the band has crafted yet. But the undeniable highlight of the disc is its closing cut and arguably the best song Paul Westerberg’s ever written, the emotionally powerful – and deceptively beautiful – rocker “Can’t Hardly Wait,” featuring Westerberg’s idol, Alex Chilton himself, guesting on guitar, and brass supplied by the Memphis Horns. (While it might seem like heresy to have a horn section on a Replacements song, in this case, it’s the perfect added touch and just adds to the emotional heft of the track.)
Don’t Tell a Soul (1989, Sire)
Ever-so-slightly inferior to its three predecessors, Don’t Tell a Soul is still a remarkably underrated album, one that tends to be slighted by critics for its unapologetically commercial production and the replacement of Bob Stinson as lead guitarist with the very different (both in demeanor and musical tastes) Slim Dunlap. Even if some longtime fans resented the band’s success, it worked: not only did this easily become the band’s highest-charting album yet, but the band even scored its first and only Hot 100 hit with the lead-off single from this platter, the masterful alt-rock of “I’ll Be You” (featuring the brilliantly clever couplet “Lonely / I guess that’s where I from”), as hook-loaded a song as Westerberg’s ever penned. What ultimately keeps the album from reaching the euphoric heights of Tim or Pleased to Meet Me is the slightly greater percentage of by-the-numbers filler like “I Won’t” or “We’ll Inherit the Earth,” but the band more than makes up for it with such wickedly infectious songs as the driving “Talent Show,” the highly appealing country-rock of “Achin’ to Be” (one of Westerberg’s most profound sets of lyrics yet), the dreamy ballad “They’re Blind,” and, on the opposite side of the musical spectrum, the angry thrash of “Anywhere’s Better Than Here,” the band’s most blistering song since “Bastards of Young,” while “Rock & Roll Ghost” is arguably the band’s most moving ballad since “Here Comes a Regular.” Is it the band’s most shamelessly commercial album yet? Yes. Is it their spottiest platter since Hootenanny? Yes.Still, most alt-rock bands would kill to write as many flawless songs in their entire career as Westerberg manages to offer up for just over half of the running time of the disc.
All Shook Down (1990, Sire)
Arguably the band’s most underrated disc, the band’s final outing together tends to get flak largely for not quite being a pure Replacements affair – session musicians and special guests (including Benmont Tench of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Velvet Underground’s John Cale, Concrete Blonde’s Johnette Napolitano, and Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin) are employed heavily here, while Chris Mars and Slim Dunlap seem to have contributed little to the playing, and it’s apparent from reading the liner notes that the band was on its last legs. But assuming you don’t hold the lack of presence from the other band members against the disc and instead approach the disc as you would a Westerberg solo album, it’s actually a largely solid listen, especially in its first half, which boasts such infectious cuts as the clever “Merry-Go-Round,” the driving acoustic rock of “Nobody” and “Someone Take the Wheel,” the sunny “When It Began” and the lovely “Sadly Beautiful” (featuring the aforementioned Cale on viola), while the raw balladry of the title cut hearkens back to the sonic immediacy of Pleased to Meet Me’s “Skyway.” It’s got its filler, sure, but the disc is a more mature outing than, say, Hootenanny, so the throwaways here are at least more inspired and not nearly so cringe-worthy as such early-career filler as “Mr. Whirly.” Perhaps it wasn’t as exhilarating a way to go out as, say, Pleased to Meet Me or Don’t Tell a Soul might have been, but even in its most lethargic moments, it’s still stunning to sit back and admire just how much Westerberg himself has evolved since the days of such Sorry, Ma cuts as “Customer” or “Otto,” and even if it isn’t the best introduction to the band per se, it makes a nice introduction to the path Westerberg would take on his subsequent solo career.
Replacements buffs have two solid options to choose from. Rhino’s 2006 single-disc package Don’t You Know Who I Think I Was?: The Best of the Replacements does a very good job indeed of trying to pull together the best of both the Twin/Tone and Sire years (All Shook Down’s “Nobody” really ought to be here, but that’s the only major omission of any note) while also offering up two reunion tracks (“Message to the Boys” and “Pool & Dive”). The 1997 Reprise compilation All for Nothing/Nothing for All doesn’t include anything from the Twin/Tone years, but the two-disc set offers up four songs a piece from each of the band’s albums on Sire on its first disc, while the second disc is devoted almost entirely to B-sides and rarities, many of which are surprisingly quite first-rate, particularly the country-rock of the Don’t Tell a Soul outtake “Portland,” the acoustic groove of the Pleased to Meet Me outtake “Birthday Gal,” the All Shook Down leftover “Satellite”, and the famous lost early version (with Bob Stinson still in the band’s lineup) of “Can’t Hardly Wait” recorded during the Tim sessions. The disc is a must-own for hardcore fans of the band and is a wonderful way to easily gather up the bulk of the band’s best non-LP obscurities.
The Replacements were a famously sloppy live act – one that was just as predisposed to filling up set lists with under-rehearsed covers of ‘70s AM radio favorites as to delivering the kind of epic performance they turned in – albeit very drunkenly – on Saturday Night Live in 1986. Many fans would even tell you that their sloppiness and their tendency to want to sabotage their own success was part of their charm and that the band was never the same after cleaning up its act and pursuing a more commercial path following Bob Stinson’s ouster. Not surprisingly, few good live recordings of the band exist – either, the sound quality is too poor or the performances too lackluster or even sloppy – so you’ll have to settle for For Sale: Live at Maxwell’s 1986, a 2017 release from Rhino that captures the group onstage at what’s often regarded to be the artistic peak of their career. Naturally, it’s not exactly the sound of the tightest band on the planet, but it does manage to capture the band’s charm and give you some idea of why this band was so loved.