Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Besterberg: The Best of Paul Westerberg (Excluding His Best Stuff Which Was When He Was in the Replacements)

Last week Rhino Records released the first-ever collection of Paul Westerberg's post-Replacements music -- Besterberg: The Best of Paul Westerberg. While Paul's best material by far was made during his time as leader of The Replacements (1980-1991), his solo music has been harshly and (in my view) unfairly criticized. The Replacements cast a large shadow (they were a major influence on bands like Nirvana, and were totally ripped off by the Goo Goo Dolls), and it has been very difficult for Westerberg to get free of it. It has been nearly 15 years since The 'Mats (the band's "nickname") broke up, and more than 20 years since that band's breakthrough album, Let it Be, was released, yet Paul's current creations are always compared to his former band. Paul did write all the songs for The Replacements, so it is fair to make a comparison. However, he is usually held to a standard that includes all the drunken excess and we-don't-give-a-fuck, punk rock attitude that always defined the band. Paul is no longer the same guy he was in 1984, and his fans need to get over that. Let him be who he is; and judge him compared to his current peers and not solely against your fond memories of his former amazing band. Once you do that, it is a lot easier to appreciate Paul's (admittedly somewhat spotty) solo output. I will now go through the new collection's tracks, and offer my expert opinion and keen insight. The set leans heavily on his earlier, major label releases, and skims over his more recent (and better) indie stuff. That is probably because Warner Bros. is backing the release, and those records were on Warners.

  1. "Dyslexic Heart" -- This is arguably Paul's best known song as a solo artist. It was the first track he released after the band broke up, but not one of his best. The track was featured on the soundtrack to Singles, and was the premiere single. The song is a good example of what is wrong with Paul's post-Mats material: he often tries too hard to be "clever" lyrically. I, like most of his fans, think he is one of the best lyricists of the rock era. The words just seemed to flow effortlessly out of his mouth, and he always seemed to be able to express exactly the confusion, angst, anger, joy, or whatever that YOU were feeling. This song is not effortless. He tried way too hard. This is considered something of an alternative rock radio staple. I have no idea why.
  2. "Knockin' On Mine" -- This one comes from Paul's first complete solo record, 14 Songs. This song is one of his better solo songs, and captures a lot of the feeling and attitude of The Replacements. It's a little more controlled sounding, but still has enough raw energy to make it great. "Knowledge adds, wisdom lets slide"
  3. "World Class Fad" -- This was the first single from 14 Songs, and another great track. The song seemed at the time to be coming from the perspective of a bitter "almost rock star" being angry that the music he pioneered was finally being made someone else! Critics thought he was criticizing Kurt Cobain who had just become famous at the time. In reality, it was Westerberg warning his younger counterparts that going for the brass ring isn't all its cracked up to be. This song most resembles The Replacements of any of his solo material.
  4. "Runaway Wind" -- This is a pretty weak ballad that resembles a lot of what was wrong about the Replacements' controversial Don't Tell A Soul album. The lyrics sound forced, and the music doesn't really go anywhere. I'm not a fan. It was on 14 Songs, also.
  5. "Things" -- A decent poppy jem from 14 Songs. It's all about the "things I long to tell you." It's kinda sweet and kinda cheesy, depending on your mood at the time.
  6. "Seein' Her" -- Kind of a throwaway b-side from the "World Class Fad" single. Pretty much for collectors only. The song's chorus goes something like, "Everything about her/ I like everything about her." Not a whole lot of depth. Still, it kinda rocks.
  7. "Man Without Ties" -- Another throwaway b-side from "World Class Fad."
  8. "A Star is Bored" -- This one Paul gave away to Melrose Place: The Music, a pretty weak soundtrack to the trashy TV show. Paul's song is a solo acoustic jem that has some heartfelt lyrical parts, mixed in with some really dumb lines. He is clearly trying too hard to be clever on this one. I mean, look at the title!
  9. "Stain Yer Blood" -- Kind of a decent Mats-esque rocker from Friends: Music From the TV Series CD. Good thing this song is on the collection. Believe me, you wouldn't want to have to buy that Friends CD to get this song.
  10. "Love Untold" -- This is a really touching song that served as the first single from Paul's second solo release, 1996's Eventually. The album is a mixed bag, but this tune is great. His lyrics are kinda mixed, too, but I kinda like, "does anyone recall, the saddest love of all/ the one that lets you fall, with nothing to hold/ it's a love untold."
  11. "Once Around the Weekend (Alternative Mix)" -- A remixed version of the rather generic song from Eventually. I'm not sure if this version has been released before, but it's hardly different than the original version.
  12. "Angels Walk" -- Another song from Eventually, and this one was supposedly dedicated to former Replacements' guitarist Bob Stinson who had recently died. It's a good mid-tempo song, and a nice gesture towards Bob even though he fired the guy back in '86.
  13. "It's A Wonderful Lie" -- After the relatively disappointing sales of Paul's two solo records, he was dropped by longtime record label, Reprise. Paul took a year or so off and re-emerged in 1999 on Capitol Records with Suicaine Gratification. The album was co-produced by Don Was (Rolling Stones), and was largely recorded at Paul's house. This song is a really nice, well-written solo acoustic song. It is quite autobiographical with lines like, "I'm past my prime, or was that just a pose? / It's a wonderful lie, I still get by on those" The song is among his best ever compositions.
  14. "Lookin' Out Forever" -- A mid-tempo rocker from Suicaine Gratification. It sounds a lot like the songs on his previous solo recordings. I'm not too fond of the chorus. It's still pretty somber like most of the record. Westerberg was dropped by Capitol after only one record. It made him re-evaluate his musical "career" and come to some serious decision making. He took another extended absence from recording.
  15. "Nowhere Man" -- This Beatles cover comes from the soundtrack to the Sean Penn movie, I Am Sam. Paul does a competent, solo acoustic rendering of the song. It's not that memorable, though.
  16. "High Time" -- While Paul was deciding what to do with his career, he began recording some raw, bluesy songs in his basement studio. He decided to release the material under the name Grandpaboy. Though it is easily recognizable as Westerberg, his name was not listed anywhere on the credits. Grandpaboy released a five-song EP in 2001, and then a full-length record -- Mono -- which was released together with his next solo record, Stereo. Paul signed with punk rock indie label Vagrant Records who released the two albums in 2002. "High Time" was a poor choice to represent the Mono collection. I have no idea why this one was chosen.
  17. "Let the Bad Times Roll" -- This is a really depressing, acoustic song from Stereo. Again, I would have chosen a different track like say, "Boring Enormous," but nobody called me. Stereo is a stellar album, and is highly recommended by me (plus you get the bonus Grandpaboy CD).
  18. "What a Day (For a Night)" -- The Mono/Stereo set put Paul back on the critics' lists, and seemed like a real return to form. He returned to touring after more than five years off the road, and received a huge and warm reception from his fans. Paul followed up that set with two more simultaneously released albums. Again, one as himself, and the other as Grandpaboy. This song comes from the Come Feel Me Tremble CD. This is another high-water mark in Paul's career. Unfortunately, the accompanying Grandpaboy CD, Dead Man Shake, is not represented on this set. It is an awesome, basement-recorded, raw, blues rock disc. It was released by blues label Fat Possum, and is the closest Paul has ever come to catching that raw energy that so typified the best Replacements material. Buy it if you can, and you might want to check out the DVD movie, Come Feel Me Tremble, which documents Paul's 2002 tour.
  19. "All That I Had" -- This is one of the two previously unreleased songs on this collection. It's a decent, uptempo acoustic-based song. I can go either way on it.
  20. "C'mon, C'mon, C'mon" -- The other unreleased song. It's a rocker, and the lyrics sound like he's saying "c'mon c'mon c'mon little bitch." That's probably not what he's saying, but I can't tell for sure. This one could have stayed on the shelf.
If you don't any of The Replacements CDs, I suggest starting there first. Try Pleased To Meet Me or Tim. They are great places to start. There is also a 2-CD collection called All For Nothing/Nothing For All. That set only features songs from the band's final four albums, and nothing from its first four, so it is a little lacking. Supposedly, Rhino Records will be making a career spanning box set sometime next year. If you like The Replacements, but don't have any of Paul's solo stuff, then Besterberg is a good choice. Paul's most recent solo CD, Folker, is not represented on this disc since it just came out last year.

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