Social Distancing Spins – Days 28 – 30

By Joel Francis

I hope everyone had a good holiday weekend (if you’re into that sort of thing).

R.E.M. – Reveal (2001) I counted down the days to this album’s release after hearing the lead single, “Imitation of Life.” While I still like that song and a few other moments on Reveal, it was the most unsatisfying experience I’d had with an R.E.M. album until that point. Reveal gets off to a strong start with the first handful of songs, but then just kind of floats on its pillows of keyboards. Reveal also receives a strong demerit for failing to include “Fascinating,” one of the band’s best late-period ballads. It was reportedly cut because it sounded too much like the other material, but Reveal’s biggest problem is that it sounds too samey, and few of its songs are as memorable – or beautiful – as “Fascinating.” Hearing Reveal made me wonder if Up, the band’s first album after the departure of drummer Bill Berry, was a fluke. I don’t begrudge the band for pressing on as a trio, but the great moments were further apart.

Bootsy’s Rubber Band – Bootsy? Player of the Year (1978) George Clinton’s P-Funk was a well-oiled machine by the time bass man Bootsy Collins’ their album dropped. Your mileage with Bootsy? Player of the Year will depend on how much you like Clinton’s signature sound. “Bootsy? (What’s the Name of This Town” and “Roto-Rooter” are exactly the type of high-energy funk exercises you imagine them to be. (“Town” even features some funky flute.) “Hollywood Squares” opens with an appropriately theatrical fanfare, complete with tympani. The slow grind R&B workout “Very Yes” features uncredited but very accommodating female singers. The original funkateer is in prime form here.

Matthew Sweet – Wicked System of Things (2018) After a delightful trio of covers albums with Susanna Hoffs, Matthew Sweet finally pivoted back to his solo career. That return featured so many ideas and guests it was split across two albums, Tomorrow Forever and Tomorrow’s Daughter. The Tomorrow follow-up features Sweet stripping down and rocking out in a trio. Wicked System features some Sweet’s most aggressive playing in nearly a decade, but just because the riffs are harder doesn’t mean the album is lacking Sweet’s power pop chops. “Eternity Now” and “Backwards Upside Down” are great pop songs that could easily slot alongside his ‘90s work in a setlist. “It’s a Charade” is a deceptively sunny protest song, thanks to the cheery backing vocals on the chorus. Wicked System of Things snuck out as a Record Store Day release. I’m not sure it is on streaming platforms, but it is definitely worth seeking out if you are a fan of Sweet or power pop.

The Replacements – Hootenany (1983)

The Replacements – All Shook Down (1990) The Minneapolis college rock favorite’s second album is a beautiful mess, starting with the opening title track. “Hootenany” sounds like something some drunks would rip through in the basement while warming up. In other words, it’s a perfect encapsulation of the ‘Mats’ IDGAF ethos. “Run It,” the second song turns back to the more familiar sound of the band’s debut. Side one ends with “Mr. Whirly,” another drunken jam free-associating well-known riffs and lyrics. My favorite early ‘Mats song kicks off side two. “Within Your Reach” is the first glimpse of Paul Westerberg’s more sensitive and nuanced songwriting, which would blossom on the next two albums.

By the time of All Shook Down, Westerberg was positioning himself as a Serious Songwriter. While the compositions and performances are undoubtedly better, they also aren’t as much fun. That’s not to say it isn’t a good album. “Merry Go Round,” “Nobody” and “Somebody Take the Wheel” belong on any solid Replacements playlist. “Sadly Beautiful” is Westerberg at his aching, lonely best. All Shook Down ends with a song called “The Last,” a fitting title for what would be the end of the line for the band.

Beatles – Anthology 1 (1995) It’s hard to believe, but right now we are as far from the release of the Beatles Anthology series as that landmark look back was from the end of the Beatles. It’s also hard to believe that something that was seen as the ultimate treasure trove when it came out has become so inessential today. Be honest, when was the last time you listened to any of the Anthology collections? Prior to this, it had been years for me, especially for this first volume. Thanks to all the spoken word interludes Anthology 1 has an audio documentary feel the other collections lack. At times it feels like the only reason a performance is included on the album is because it was featured in the film. It’s great fun watching the Fab Four ham it up on Morcambe and Wise, but hearing only the audio is much less fun (and insightful). Hearing the Decca audition tape and the Quarrymen performances are historically interesting but not musically vital. In other words, I’m glad they’re here and that I have them, but I rarely reach for them.

Of course, the big draw for this set was the reunion track “Free As a Bird.” I liked it at the time and I still enjoy it today. Then again, I am also a big fan of George Harrison, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr as individual musicians, so I was already standing on third before the first pitch was thrown. Hearing these three interact musically on John Lennon’s recording is a delight, and frankly Anthology 1’s best moment. That’s not to say there aren’t other great songs here. The early versions of “One After 909” and hearing “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Eight Days a Week” are definite high points. But the band was finding their footing more than they were experimenting. That came in the later, superior, Anthologies.

Review: “All Over But the Shouting”

(Above: The Replacements always went out of their way to defy convention. While other acts were turning music videos into high-budget mini-movies, the ‘Mats responded by giving MTV a nearly static, continuous shot of a speaker for their “Bastards of Young.” It works.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Sometimes at a concert, if you’re lucky, the room will fade away and the music will ring out twice as loud. Your spirit attaches to the notes as your soul hovers, if only for a moment, one with the sound.

These are the moments music fans live for. They can occur in arenas and outdoor sheds, but they’re most likely to appear in small, sweaty spaces where strangers are forced to jostle and celebrate in uncomfortably close proximity.

“All Over But the Shouting,” an oral history of the Replacements by Jim Walsh, is a book of such moments. By forgoing the traditional narrative voice, Walsh lets the fans tell the story of their favorite band. Through their accounts, you can feel the group’s egotistical hesitancy at early gigs at the Longhorn bar and 7th Street Entry in Minneapolis. The quartet didn’t quite have the magic yet, but they could feel the potential, and hoped the elements would coalesce in time to produce.

The first-person accounts take readers behind the scenes, to conversations with junior high and high school classmates, and men and women who caught each other’s eyes for the first time, like ‘Mats lead singer Paul Westerberg and his future wife, Laurie Lindeen. The text crackles with the energy of early enthusiasts like Emily Boigenzahn. She appears early in the book as a major ‘Mat’s fan, only to have the band pull the rug out from under her when they hire her father, Slim Dunlap, to replace founding guitarist Bob Stinson. After hearing her champion the band so frequently, her heartache is especially resonant at learning her dad is now in her favorite band.

Walsh admits his fanboy bias in the preface, but let’s detractors and critics weigh in. Fans, especially long-time devotees, are never shy about pinpointing the precise moment the band lost the plot in their eyes. Walsh is especially deft handling the firing of Stinson and original manager Pete Jesperson, weaving historic quotes and news stories with contemporary interviews. Walsh is also frank in his treatment of the ‘Mats final days, when Westerberg and bass player Tommy Stinson were the only founding members left in the lineup. Walsh lets lame-duck drummer Steve Foley gush about the gig, but doesn’t sugarcoat the end of the reign.

The only time Walsh’s approach lets him down is on the creative side. We hear plenty of stories about where people were the day an album came out or when a song was released to radio, but very little on Westerberg’s songwriting process. This deficiency is especially glaring in the pages dealing with the band’s transition from their second album, “Hootenany,” to the more realized “Let It Be.” Westerberg’s writing matured significantly during that time, but we have no glimpses into what may have occurred to spur this growth.

The book runs past the end of the band, letting fans weigh in on Tommy Stinson’s current gig with Guns ‘N’ Roses, and giving Westerberg (through secondary sources) and Dunlap speculate on the chances of a ‘Mats reunion (not good). Walsh is at his finest during the 50 poignant pages covering Bob Stinson’s final days. Friends, random people Stinson befriended at bars, his last girlfriend, and even Stinson’s mom paint an unvarnished picture of Stinson’s post-Replacements life, his generous spirit and addictions. Walsh’s longtime relationship with the band shines as he places these remembrances in context alongside news stories he wrote at the time, other local coverage and the eulogy Walsh delivered at Stinson’s funeral.

As with most stories, a hint of melancholy runs throughout the book, but it is never overshadowed by the glorious free spirit of the music.

“All Over But the Shouting” assumes the reader already has a working level of knowledge about the band, and therefore may not be the best read for newcomers. Beginner’s just discovering the band through the song “Alex Chilton” after its namesake’s passing are advised to put in some time with the ‘Mats catalog before wading in. For longtime fans, “All Over But the Shouting” is nearly as enjoyable as hearing those classic ‘Mats recordings again for the first time.

Keep reading:

Review: “The Oxford American: Book of Great Music Writing”

Review – “Record Store Days”

(Below: A more traditional video from the band’s final days, “Achin’ To Be.”)

Classic Christmas Carol: “Jesus Christ”

By Joel Francis

Big Star’s third album isn’t a happy affair. The record was delayed for four years by their label and issued in various configurations before finally being issued on CD as “Third/Sister Lovers,” nearly 15 years later. More than three decades later, it remains a fascinating mish mash of songs about death, abandonment, sexual paranoia and odd Velvet Underground and Jerry Lee Lewis covers.

Yet – perhaps metaphorically – out of this mess comes “Jesus Christ.” The fourth cut on the album, the song eschews the expected sarcasm and is a straightforward celebration of the Savior’s birth. In two short verses, songwriter and vocalist Alex Chilton paints an image of angles rejoicing that “Jesus Christ was born today.”

“Jesus Christ” is barely over two and a half minutes, but Chilton doesn’t even need that much to get his point across. The track starts with 20 seconds of nonsense before song kicks in, and closes with a saxophone solo from guest Carl Marsh that betrays the band’s Memphis roots. The performance has a deceptively spare arrangement, alternating between raw verses delivered with just Chilton’s guitar and voice and Jody Stephens’ drums. The touches of piano and percussion on the chorus, however, show that the boys have studied Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. Although he’s barely audible in the mix, producer Jim Dickinson is presumably somewhere in the background, thumping away on bass.

Big Star may not have been big stars – a video for this song couldn’t even be found online – but they were very influential. Power pop acts like Teenage Fanclub, Matthew Sweet and the New Pornographers owe a lot of their sound to Big Star. Paul Westerberg name-checked Big Star’s leader in the Replacements single “Alex Chilton.” Both Teenage Fanclub and Athens, Ga.-based acolytes R.E.M. have recorded memorable versions of “Jesus Christ.”

Keep reading:

Classic Christmas Carol: “In the Bleak Midwinter”

Classic Christmas Carol: “Greensleeves”

Classic Christmas Carol: “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

Classic Christmas Carol: “Fairytale of New York”