October 23, 2020


The Replacements: Pleased to Meet Me (Deluxe Edition) (Jake Cole, 10/20/20, Spectrum Culture)

Helping Westerberg realize his mounting ambitions to escape punk's limitations was producer Jim Dickinson, who had also sat behind the boards for the band's beloved Big Star for that group's Third. Dickinson brings the sleaze and bombast of Memphis soul to the record, particularly in the copious use of horns on several tracks. In Dickinson's hands, the Replacements retain all of their slovenly bar-band charm while hinting that they could hit the meteoric heights attained by prior bar acts-made-good like ZZ Top and the Faces. Instead of burying the group under gloss, Dickinson pointed out all the little pockmarks and blemishes that made them authentic.

The attempt to turn the band into a quantifiable success is also borne out in Westerberg's lyrics, which frequently cast a bemused, suspicious, ironic glance at the prospect of cleaning up for the bosses. "I Don't Know" revels in its raunchy horn section, using it as a backdrop to make a jaundiced yet clear assessment of the band's current situation as "one foot in the door / Another foot in the gutter." "Nightclub Jitters" imagines the band as washed-up losers playing background lounge music, having succeeded at respectability only to fade away into self-parody.

On the other hand, the album's most enduring song, "Alex Chilton," flips this pessimism on its head. An exuberant tribute to his musical hero (who also guests on "Can't Hardly Wait"), Westerberg captures all the awe and possessiveness of the rabid fan, casting the Big Star mastermind as an otherworldly figure while also succumbing to the desire for tidy rock narratives when he notes as an aside "If he died in Memphis, then that'd be cool." In anyone else's hands, singing "Children by the millions sing for Alex Chilton" would seem glibly sarcastic for describing a cult artist notoriously robbed of commercial success to match his critical stature, but Westerberg's earnestness clearly sees such a career as artistically valid. "Alex Chilton" isn't just the best song on the album, it's the one that gives away the game, revealing even as the group made its clearest bid for sales that they were gunning for long-term respect over short-term chart validation.

Rhino's deluxe edition charts the long journey toward this simultaneously open-hearted and cagey record. It includes a host of demos that find the group experimenting with combining their signature sound with rockabilly and other sounds native to Memphis, while rough mixes of the album's tracks reveal the depth that Dickinson brought to the material, sussing out the sophistication hidden underneath versions that are still more aggressive and spiky than reflective.Yet the true delights reside in the b-sides and outtakes that litter the set. Goof-offs abound, from the political disgust of "Election Day" to"All He Wants to Do Is Fish," which parodied self-consciously "Merican" country of the 1990s and 2000s years ahead of time. But there are also real gems here that could have stood on their own; "Learn How to Fail" would have fit like a glove amid the self-doubt and growing maturity of the final album's ruminations, and the lilting "Birthday Gal" is one of those Replacements songs made to be played outside on a sunny day.

Posted by at October 23, 2020 5:24 PM