In early 1989 expectations were high for The Replacements as they were about to follow up two major-label commercial misses with their third record for Sire, Don’t Tell A Soul. They’d always been under-the-radar, under-appreciated, and under-achieving, but there was a buzz in the air that this might be the one that breaks the curse. The album would live in infamy as their best-selling, highest charting and most polarizing release. What hasn’t been said about Don’t Tell A Soul? It’s got some great stuff on it, but the dated, murky, reverb-and-chorus drenched 80’s production has haunted its legacy ever since the grunge movement gave us a kick in the pants and a harsh reminder that albums were better when they sounded like they were made by real bands playing real instruments.
Still – they were going for it, for better or worse. They were on TV, there were magazine covers, posters in record stores, a big-time summer tour opening for Tom Petty, and even [gasp] a real video. Where it went from there is, well, depressing. Many see DTAS as the beginning of the end (though I might argue that moment came when Bob Stinson was fired in 1986). Their 1991 swan-song follow-up All Shook Down, while more organic and loose sounding, lacked the teeth of any of their previous records, and they limped to the finish line, sounding tired and sober, promoting a record that was decent, but more or less a Westerberg solo album from the start.
I’m in the “like the album, hate the production” camp when it comes to DTAS. I missed Bob, but I liked Slim, and I understood even then that bands evolve and why they made that change. “Talent Show,“ “I’ll Be You,“ “They’re Blind,” and the under-rated “Back to Back” stood out to me, and I think “Achin’ to Be” is up there with Paul’s best. I hated the trying-too-hard-not-to-try tracks like “Rock and Roll Ghost” and “I Won’t.” The rest is somewhere in the middle – it’s no ”Let it Be” but God knows I played the hell out if it that summer and saw them three times on that tour. (Read about a couple of those times here.) While I struggled with the fact that they weren’t “my” band anymore, I was happy to see them getting some of the attention they deserved. Like everyone else I watched with a big smile when they played “Talent Show” on the International Rock Awards that spring, flanked by performances from Keith Richards and The Bangles while Matt Dillon watched and smiled, one of the few in the building that “got it.”
Over the years the legacy of the album took a beating. Only the most loyal and biased fans claim the album as a favorite and the production as an asset. There were always rumors of an original mix, the one the band wanted, but not the one that the label released. The story goes that Paul hated the final mix, and that’s probably a part of why I hated it too. Hearing what the band had in mind for these songs has always been at the top of hard-core fans’ wish lists, right along with a live DVD (that we’ve yet to see) and a proper live album (which we got in 2017 with the incredible For Sale: Live at Maxwell’s 1986).
Then, earlier this year came word about Dead Man’s Pop – a 4CD/1LP and limited edition cassette release. This is the holy grail we’ve been waiting for, from the post-Bob era anyways. As excited as I was about For Sale two years earlier, I’d been listening to a great bootleg recording of that show for 30 years. This was different – a ton of stuff no one’s ever heard, a sweet package, and hopefully the redemption that material deserves.
Disc One is the Matt Wallace mix of the album. This is a new mix, but one that recalls the original that the band had in mind before the label got involved. Gone is the polish and spit-shine that muddied up the sound. The backup vocals are louder, the guitars are more present and clear, and the drums sound more natural, just like we'd hoped. The takes are mostly the same, but the performances shine. They sound like what they were - a band struggling to bridge their rambunctious past with their more-focused present, while not letting either get too close or too far away.
Stripping the production down exposes more than just the sounds they were making - there's an exciting spontaneity and beautiful vulnerability present now, offering up that elusive element in great music that we love but can't often define. The differences between these mixes and the originals are present throughout, but less obvious in songs like "Achin to Be" and "I'll Be You," and more so on "They're Blind," "Darlin' One," and "Rock and Roll Ghost." Even my least favorite song on the record "I Won't" sounds like it should - pissed off and ornery, more like "IOU" from Pleased to Meet Me and less like some aging punks trying to sound half their age. The guitar solo on "They're Blind" is one of my favorite moments on the original release, but the alternate solo here might be even better. This is the record it was supposed to be, and had it been, we can only wonder how history would look back on it.
Disc Two is a collection of outtakes, demos, alt-mixes, and a few tracks from the session with Tom Waits that produced the "I'll Be You" B-Side "Date to Church." While this stuff is solid gold to a dork like me who's been waiting to hear it for 30 years, it's more typical of a deluxe-edition package for real fans rather than a cohesive, flowing collection. Still there's great stuff to digest. The up-tempo, solo-acoustic take on "Rock 'N' Roll Ghost" is maybe the most honest of all the versions. "Talent Show" and "We'll Inherit The Earth" are significantly more rockin' than any other renditions, and the stripped down "They're Blind" is a more intimate take than heard on the album. The greatly restrained "I'll Be You" is interesting, but pales against the Wallace mix or even the original release, and might have fit better on the equally restrained All Shook Down. A couple previously unheard songs "Last Thing In The World" and "Dance on My Planet" are welcome, as is any unheard song written and sung by Paul Westerberg, but do little to dispute my long-standing opinion that bonus tracks more often than not didn't make the album for a reason.
The Tom Waits tracks are a novelty, and as a huge Waits fan, I take no joy in saying that with the exception of a few brief moments, they'll likely have little staying power and don't add much beyond a document of a drunken night in LA. To hear Waits croon "If Only You Were Lonely" or Westerberg sing "Ol' 55" with some real effort would have been diamonds here, but the former is a sloppy, half-assed struggle and the latter was sadly left off the collection. Of the Waits tracks, the full-band version of "We Know The Night" is easily the standout, and drives home the fact that the rehearsal take that preceded it could have been excluded. The Wallace remix of "Date to Church" is refreshing, fits perfectly with the first disc, and reminds us that something productive and worthwhile actually came out of that session. It's safe to say that disc two will get the fewest spins of this collection, but this is material that deserves to be heard, belongs on this collection, and is far from a wash.
Discs three and four are a live recording from the 1989 Milwaukee show that produced the "Inconcerated" promo EP. While it's not the gloriously raw and in-your-face explosion that For Sale: Live at Maxwell's is, it's a spirited, up-tempo, energetic and abrasive document of that tour. They can't be accused of phoning it in this night. This was Slim's second tour with the `mats and his presence is felt - his lanky figure meandering around stage left, goofy smile, crazy hair, and tasty riffs. It's the best version of "Talent Show" that there is - studio or live. "We might even win this fucker, ya never know." Paul sings, ad-libbing like he did better than anyone when he felt like it. His vocals lead the way throughout, often going up when he stayed level on the record. There's warts too - Slim's amp shorting and squealing throughout "The Ledge" has Paul agitated, tuning issues ruin “Little Mascara” and “Can’t Hardly Wait”, and “Here Comes A Regular” suffers as both rushed and lazy at the same time, but they left them in, as they should have. It's imperfect, it’s fun, it's raw, it's rock and roll, it's The Replacements.
The box set delivers - it's a fantastic package that covers what should have been, the journey there, and the live culmination of that demo-record-tour cycle that is such a big part of this bands legacy. It takes a miss and makes it a hindsight-hit. There's a dose of healthy nostalgia here too, talking me back to Ann Arbor, March 10, 1989 on the opening night of that tour. They say there's plenty more in the vaults, but I'm not sure anything could match this due to the sheer NEED for the redemption that "Don't Tell a Soul" deserved alone. It's Christmas time, Replacements fans. Drink it up.
Jeremy Porter lives near Detroit and fronts the rock and roll band Jeremy Porter And The Tucos - www.thetucos.com