Too late to turn back? Looks like Paul Westerberg has been given the opportunity to rethink those words. When the college rock icon finally called time on The Replacements’ second coming midway through 2015, it put paid to any hopes fans may have harboured that we might eventually see some new material from the much-loved Minneapolis band. But still, here we are with ‘Dead Man’s Pop’; as close as we’ll get to the next best thing, and arguably something of a holy grail for many worshippers at the altar of the ‘Mats.
Primarily, this is a reissue – albeit with a difference – of ‘Don’t Tell A Soul’, the sixth Replacements album and the last one to feature the band working together as a cohesive unit (the following ‘All Shook Down’, which ultimately proved to be their swansong, was essentially a Westerberg solo record with contributions from his bandmates and various session musicians). But with the record having gone down in the band’s history as something of a misfire – due in part to poor sales but also to a radio-targeted post-production mix from celebrated engineer Chris Lord-Alge, which unfortunately made it sound like 1988 with some songs underneath – casual listeners may be wondering whether it merits revisiting at all.
First things first, then: as these previously unreleased mixes demonstrate, there was much more going on with ‘Don’t Tell A Soul’ than was presented to the world in February 1989. ‘Dead Man’s Pop’ ultimately tries to paint a more accurate picture of The Replacements amidst what should have been a blaze of glory.
It’s a beautifully assembled package, collecting producer Matt Wallace’s original mixes alongside earlier sessions, plus the results of a thoroughly drunken evening spent in the studio with Tom Waits, and an utterly blazing live set that should help underline that the ‘Mats could also be one of the most knockout rock bands on the planet, when they were in the mood. It also comes with fascinating sleeve notes from band biographer Bob Mehr, which eagle-eyed readers may spot as being edited and appended sections from his 2016 book Trouble Boys (as definitive a document of their history as anyone has produced thus far) –a fitting guide to an edited and appended version of the album itself.
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Onto the music, and here’s the good news – the ‘redux’ version of the album itself is utterly magnificent. With the track list rejigged, original mixes restored and a wealth of textures bursting to the fore, it feels like a completely different album to the one Sire Records opted to release.
‘Don’t Tell A Soul’ arrived at a point in Westerberg’s songwriting career where he wanted to flex his muscles further (hence less power pop surge and more evidence of maturation; hence doo-wop balladry; hence an attempt at Jackson 5 funk-pop), but smothered in Lord-Alge’s dynamic compression techniques, the songs have a tendency to come across as cold genre experiments fresh off a production line; tossed off methodically but not lovingly. Wallace’s original mixes feel more like recordings of a bunch of guys in a room together – it feels like the heart has been put back into this album.
As with the Sire version, the redux kicks off with ‘Talent Show’, although it instantly feels more loose and ragged. Never the most strident of songs in their catalogue, nonetheless there’s a sense of purpose to the band’s playing that drives one of Westerberg’s more subtle loser’s anthems.
"It’s the biggest thing in my life," he sings, adding an irreverent ‘I guess’ to keep us all on our toes. As the song crashes to a nervy false stop just ahead of the line "We might even win this time, guys, you never know", it’s clear that the talent show is a perfect allegory for where the band found themselves at this point in their career; attempting to launch themselves to greater success but unsure as to whether they truly believed they could.
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Among the true revelations is the melancholic sweep of ‘Back To Back’, which is now beautiful where it was once muddy (assisted by some newly-uncovered brass lines, which pop and fizz sweetly). There’s also ‘Asking Me Lies’, with its awkward funk of old now blown wide open thanks to the unexpectedly natural groove of bassist Tommy Stinson and drummer Chris Mars.
And then, maybe best of all, there’s a stunning version of ‘They’re Blind’, stripped of its Billy Joel-esque doo-wop schmaltz and slowed down to a poignant, bluesy slow burner. This cut also gives guitarist Slim Dunlap the chance to show off his finest licks on his first album as a full-time Replacement, having… um, replaced founder member Bob Stinson in 1989. He’s a more traditional player than his predecessor; his style more disciplined and tasteful than Bob’s wild fretwork, but it suits the songs perfectly, and this mix truly brings that to the fore without losing the band’s singular raucousness.
Not everything is made of the purest gold – every Replacements album needs a boneheaded stomper, and the relentlessly dumb boogie of ‘I Won’t’ fulfils that criteria here. The new mix gives it an extra shot of adrenaline, but it’s still the one cut here that feels curiously out of place.
The shifting of mellotron-assisted acoustic lament ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Ghost’ to the album’s close is a masterstroke, however, with Westerberg foretelling his own fading from the limelight in truly heartbreaking fashion – the bitter punchline to ‘Talent Show’s tentative set-up. We’re left with no question that Wallace’s vision would have painted a truer picture of the band – it deserves to be considered the definitive take on the album.
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So what of the extras? The recordings remixed for this collection actually represented the band’s second attempt to create ‘Don’t Tell A Soul’ – originally, they’d hauled themselves over to Bearsville Studios in upstate New York, where they worked with rookie producer Tony Berg over a doomed ten-day stretch. The band, filling themselves with booze and muscle relaxants, went straight into self-destructive mode and became increasingly combative with Berg; tensions erupted as the sessions seemed weighted towards spotlighting Westerberg as a singer-songwriter rather than creating a group environment. One of the resulting spats famously spilled out into the studio’s communal areas, where a resting Metallica were left agog. Meanwhile the band entertained themselves by throwing knives at each other and smashed a car into a tree, before sacking the producer and going back to the drawing board.
Of these sessions, which admittedly come across more like demos feeling their way into fully-fledged songs, the most notable efforts are cuts like the thrashing ‘Wake Up’ and the jaunty ‘Last Thing In The World’, which point at the alternate directions the album could have taken. There are also some fascinating earlier drafts of ‘Mats favourites – ‘Achin’ To Be’ in particular comes with an unexpected set of harmonies that hit like sunshine pouring through curtains and almost leave you wishing they’d left them in for the final edit.
The Bearsville sessions are complemented by earlier sketches, a rollicking cover of Slade’s ‘Gudbuy T’Jane’ and the fruits of that aforementioned night with Tom Waits. While that might seem an unusual pairing to some, it’s worth noting that he and The Replacements were mutual fans – as the senior songsmith summarised: “They seem broken, y’know? One leg is missing. I like that.” The sessions are audibly boozey and not necessarily fascinating at all times, but there’s something endearing about hearing them butcher Westerberg’s country-slop slowie ‘If Only You Were Lonely’, while ‘Lowdown Monkey Blues’ sees the band whipping up a murky swamp-blues vibe as the two singers trade self-deprecating improvisations and laugh admiringly at each other’s work.
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‘Dead Man’s Pop’ is completed by a 29-song live set from 1989, recorded at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Previously the site of one of the band’s more notable on-stage implosions, the performance collected here sees them on their finest form, ripping through fan faves like ‘Alex Chilton’, ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’ and ‘Left Of The Dial’ and gleefully blitzing covers from the likes of Johnny Thunders, The Only Ones and the ‘101 Dalmatians’ soundtrack, all to a delighted crowd. Few live recordings have surfaced from this era of the band’s history; here’s your chance to realise that they could cut it with the best of ‘em, even while they were beginning to fall apart.
The title of the box set comes from one of the original suggested titles for the album itself; as their last-ditch attempt to chase success, they were faced with a perceived choice between following their instincts or going down a less-appealing ‘hard rock’ route. It turned out their instincts were directed towards the no-longer-fashionable radio pop of their youth – ‘dead man’s pop’ indeed. Funny then that this collection should contain so much life, from an album restored to splendour, to a night of joyful inebriation and creativity with a showbiz pal, to a ferocious performance in front of adoring fans.
Following ‘All Shook Down’, Westerberg would finally make his way into a solo career, while Tommy Stinson explored noisier powerpop territory with Bash & Pop and Perfect (not to mention bass stints with Guns N’ Roses and Soul Asylum). Mars also released a series of solo albums before largely abandoning music in favour of painting, his true passion, and Dunlap simply returned to the Minneapolis live circuit. It was the latter’s stroke that initially brought Stinson and Westerberg to (briefly) revive the band, with a reunion tour that spanned 2013-15; this is the first time since then that we’ve been given the chance to look at their work in a new light.
The Replacements ultimately became the rock’n’roll ghosts they sang about here – ‘Dead Man’s Pop’ is the perfect tribute.
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Words: Will Fitzpatrick
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