By Mark Guarino | Daily Herald Music Critic
If you’re a Replacements fan, you are not doubt energized by the second coming Paul Westerberg.
The Replacements, the Minneapolis band that lived fast and died young between 1980 and 1990, are the link between the noisy garage rock of the ’60s British bands like the Faces and the Rolling Stones and today’s glut of back-to-basics groups like the White Stripes.
Although the Replacements were mainly an underground phenomenon, Westerberg ended up a generational icon whose influence was strongly felt in the following decade. The discontent and broken dreams in his songs felt genuine in a way none of his successive imitators – Ryan Adams and Adam Duritz of the Counting Crows among others – ever could. During his solo tour last year, songs like “Answering Machine,” “I Will Dare” and “Unsatisfied” survived not just as reminders of an era but as durable classics.
Because of a bout with alcoholism and a solo career on Capitol Records that was fading fast, Westerberg threatened to disappear until Vagrant – the emo punk label that is home to Dashboard Confessional and Alkaline Trio among others – swept in after his four-year hiatus to help re-introduce him to longtime fans and secure his status as a restless innovator.
The double album “Stereo/Mono” (Vagrant) was basement recordings – one acoustic singer-songwriter record, one electric garage rock record, recorded under his alter ego Grandpaboy. Their critical success – and a sold-out tour that followed – helped boost Westerberg’s confidence that he still had a fanbase that cared about him and wanted to see him play.
“I’m not going to be there if I thought I wasn’t wanted. I could only assume everyone in the place came to see me, and it just loosened me up and made me feel happy. And it’s an incredible feeling to see a thousand smiling faces,” he told the Daily Herald last year.
His rebirth continues this year with three releases out this month – two new albums plus a DVD documentary. And there’s more to come. This fall the 43-year-old announced he’d release yet another new album, called “Folker,” come spring with a full-band tour – his first since 1996 – to follow.
The tour film “Come Feel Me Tremble” (Ventura, ***) had a limited release in theaters this fall before arriving as a 100-minute DVD. If you caught any of his shows last year, there’s a chance you’re on camera. Fan photographs and home video account for much of the footage, giving it a ragged look that fits its subject well.
If you’re seeking a tidy documentary, this isn’t it. Besides some cursory self-conscious commentary on the Replacements (“for us to succeed would have been to fail – it was our job to fail on as big a scale as possible”), his fixation on the Rolling Stones (“like a candy bar – you like it until your teeth fall out”) and his chance elevator ride with Kurt Cobain (“he was dying to be dying and I was dying to be somewhere else”), the majority of the film is a voyeuristic look at Westerberg onstage and hovering nearby. You see him stretched out on the floor of his dressing room, listening to the house music seconds before going on, meeting fans after a show, and, in a prime “Spinal Tap” moment, walking through a city street to a club and trying to find the back door inside.
The threadbare performances onstage and in his ramshackle basement studio reveal Westerberg’s priorities in full bloom. Watching him scrape for first-take inspiration with everything he’s got is plenty excruciating because he’s trying to grab perfection and innovation at the same time. Many may share his credo that studio finesse is a fraud, but few take the road less traveled so seriously.
“Come Feel Me Tremble” (Vagrant, ***), the soundtrack album, is Westerberg in one-man band mode. Not that you’d notice it’s just him behind the wheel. The all-new songs brandish muddy grooves bashed out, it sounds, by a four-man Stones.
With sloppy ease, Westerberg veers from a heavy midnight truck-driving song (“Dirty Diesel”) to a soulful balladry (“What a Day for a Night”) to one of the purest pop songs he’s written in years (“My Daydream”). The lo-fi sound is a familiar one – here, he’s in pure carefree rocking mode.
“Dead Man Shake” (Fat Possum, **) is looser still, drenched in echo with the barest of production. It’s Westerberg doing blues and country with covers including Hank Williams (“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”), John Prine (“Souvenirs”) and Jimmy Reed (“Take Out Some Insurance”). Besides his blues shuffling homage to his hometown (“MPLS” – “the place that I like best”) and an original that is pure Keith Richards swagger (“Vampires & Failures”), much of the album sounds too self-consciously haggard, like a basement tape with dust shoveled on top. Still, for fans of Westerberg the Minneapolis post-punk icon, it is an unusual opportunity to see him connect loneliness and alienation back to a time when the blues was located further down the Mississippi River.