Here’s the second installment of the three-or-four-piece-series-I-haven’t-decided-yet focused on our favorite band, The Replacements. Today we’ll be talking about the two albums that showed the Replacements’ true progression of genres from punk to garage-meets-powerpop-meets-punk-meets-Johnny Thunders.
HOOTENANNY – AVALON KENNY
Hootenanny is not a huge departure from the loud and angsty punk of Sorry Ma and Stink, but it definitely shows a step towards the poppy sounds the ‘Mats would adopt with future albums. Hootenanny is noise driven, peppered with punk anthems with scattered songs foreshadowing the transition away from the aggressiveness of ‘81.
Kicking off with the bass laden, almost falling apart title track, “Hootenanny,” there’s already an obvious shift in the band’s sound. It’s not an incredibly serious song, but there’s an almost blues undertone to it. The song stumbles along, sounding just as drunk as the band recording it. Up next is a more stereotypical ‘Mats song, and the song my dad decided was a good idea to play on repeat when I learned how to drive. “Run It” shoots you straight back to Sorry Ma, crashing and loud with growling vocals. Bob Stinson’s guitar chugs along, mirroring “Takin’ A Ride,” another song about reckless driving.
“Color Me Impressed” is probably the earliest example of the path the band would follow. It would fit just as well on Let It Be or Tim. You almost wanna think it’s out of place on Hootenanny, especially following the pounding “Run It.” But even though it seems like a misfit, it shines as one of the greatest tracks on the record. Paul Westerberg’s voice is notably less reminiscent of a snarl and more melodic than he’d previously allowed himself to be. It starts to touch on his distinct vocals that you’d find on later records. The song maintains the angsty aesthetic commonly found in other songs, but serves it up in a different sound. “Willpower” is weird. I don’t really wanna talk about it. It definitely has cool vocal effects, at the least?
After the comedown of the previous songs, “Take Me Down To The Hospital” picks you right back up and punches you in the face. It’s definitely faster, with Stinson’s ragged, screeching guitar over chugging power chords and plodding drums. Westerberg wails over a noisy guitar interlude, and the song goes up and down repeatedly until falling apart. “Mr Whirly” is faster and more rock ‘n’ roll than punk. You can hear the Johnny Thunders’ influence in the guitar, and there’s a less-than-sober Beatles callback (Stinson was a huge fan of the Beatles). It immediately picks back up for the ending, with Paul’s almost expected howls screeching as it ends.
And then there’s another hint to the future of the ‘Mats, with “Within Your Reach.” Backed by a drum machine, because Chris Mars could never quite get it the way Westerberg wanted it, it’s another bummer. Paul’s desperation takes the form of an almost-ballad instead of buzzsaw guitar and screeching. A heartbreaking, slow wail, the song is one of the first allowances of Westerberg’s vulnerability. To give you a breather between the punch in the gut received by Paul’s heavy-hearted wails, they give you two minutes to get your shit back together with “Buck Hill.” An instrumental, surfy number, it’s not quite as complex as Dick Dale or anything, but maybe hints at their affection for the Ventures.
After the surf segue, Paul’s vocals return on “Loveliness” to sarcastically read off the classifieds section of a newspaper over a swinging rhythm section. “You Lose” and “Hayday” are definitely the dregs of Mats of 1981 draining out. Both are upbeat, snarly punk numbers, both backed by pounding drums and the last bits of Westerberg’s screeches. The album closes out with “Treatment Bound,” a tongue in cheek, folk-punk anthem with sarcastic lyrics.
Hootenanny definitely shows the transformation to the Mats of the mid 80s. It clings to bits of the more hardcore influenced teenagers they used to be, but shows an expansion of talent. It’s the perfect passage to…
LET IT BE – ANNA THEODORA
Whereas Hootennany may have been the first Replacements record to notably veer away from their earlier, true-to-genre punk, Let it Be was a step forward into solidifying a unique sound for the band outside of the usual conventions. Though not a massive success when it came out (possibly also due to the band’s self-sabotaging and self destructive tendencies), the album finds itself solidly placed amongst “best of” lists over and over again. It serves as a middle ground in the band’s career, a bridge between the more immature sounds on their earlier efforts and the more mature, unique songwriting they would experiment with later on. By and large, choosing to produce the record themselves is what makes this truly authentic Replacements. It’s what allowed the band to explore and to play their hearts out with the ragged sincerity that makes them such a mainstay among music fans and misfit kids.
“I Will Dare,” the album opener, serves as a distinct microcosm of what’s to be expected throughout the next hour or so. It’s a rock ‘n’ roll song, it’s a garage song, it’s a love song and it’s more than all of those at the same time. At this point, the band is working in harmonious chaos, serving up a bassline and a chorus that will get stuck in your head all day, while still retaining the manic energy of the dueling guitars and complimented by Westerberg’s sometimes desperate sounding yells. The rest of side A continues in a similar fashion, with simple and sweet “Favorite Thing” and the charmingly aggressive “We’re Comin’ Out” and culminates with a KISS cover, of all things, that the ‘Mats manage to spin into a dirty-sounding garage jam.
To me, “Androgynous” is in a category all it’s own. Not a love song like “Favorite Thing” is a love song, and wildly different from the subject matter of something like “Gary’s Got a Boner,” “Androgynous” is tender and moving and stark, particularly in comparison to the rest of side A. The first song on the album (and in the band’s career) to not be helmed by guitars, the piano refrain becomes instantly recognizable while Paul does his best to croon. And the story that unfolds is a moving one, about two folks in love with each other in spite of being at odds with the world. “Androgynous” in three minutes explores a more nuanced and heartfelt perspective on gender identity and expression in 1984 than most bands in 2016 will even consider to do in their entire careers. There is much to learn from the Replacements’, whether speaking towards their influence on music or as warning in the way they handled their ups and downs, but there is so much more to learn still from “Androgynous.” 32 years later, future outcasts are still tryin’ to dress the way that they please, and the song stays as brutally relevant as when it was released.
Side B starts and ends with two of the most gut wrenching songs the Replacements would ever put out. What can be said about “Unsatisfied” that hasn’t already been said to death? It speaks towards a universal yearning in all senses of the song. Westerberg, again, sounds desperate on this song, but delivering the lyrics in less of a hoarse yelp and more of a plea, while the guitar tone creates a sonic dissonance that adds to the track a feeling of desperation that lyrics alone could not convey. “Answering Machine” rounds out the album in a devastating fashion. At this point in time, many of us simply don’t know what it’s like to say you’re okay or goodnight to an answering machine, or at least not in our recent memory. Sending out a text for a loved one too far away reach out and reassure you only to be met with the read receipt or complete silence conveys the same heart wrenching ache that pushes itself to the forefront of this song.
While giving nods to their roots in punk, Let it Be looks towards an uncertain future for the band. In the end, though, it serves to summarize each facet of what a unique band was really about. The Replacements always straddled the gap; professional and amateur, punk and college rock, put together and falling apart. Let it Be is all of those things, it’s a calling card and a moment in time and a reason why many later artists plugged in guitars or shouted their heart out into a microphone. The juxtaposition of the raucous guitars and indomitable spirit with soul-baring lyrics have made this band unrelentingly unforgettable, and has caused albums like Let it Be to stand the test of time, and be something I’m sure will only grow with relevance as more time passes and more kids get turned on to those trouble boys out of Minneapolis.