Hootenanny devolves into the barely controlled chaos that its opener promised.
Released in 1983, Hootenanny stands as the first great record from the Replacements. The quartet’s debut Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash has its charms, including “Raised in the City,” “I Hate Music” and “Customer,” but you’d be hard-pressed to remember “More Cigarettes,” “Shutup” or “Don’t Ask Why” for very long at all. Stink, the stopgap EP that was rush-released in 1982, can, at least, claim “White and Lazy,” but even that doesn’t stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the material on Let It Be or Tim. So what makes Hootenanny all that and a case of Blatz?
Some of what’s greatest about the record gets told in the opening, titular number. The group was recording in “some god awful suburb north of MPLS.” Not only was the suburb god awful but relations between the group and recording engineer Paul Stark were somewhat less than chilly. Eager to have a laugh at the expense of the humorless engineer, the band members traded instruments. Paul Westerberg ducked behind Chris Mars’ drum kit while Mars grabbed a guitar to play lead, Bob Stinson took his brother Tommy’s bass and handed over his guitar. Stark, stranded in his mobile truck with the gear ready to go, cued up the tape as Westerberg called the first tune. And soon, a slippery, unholy mess was born.
But that’s not strictly true. There’s a certain ambiguity to the track. Is it the sound of a song coming together or a song coming apart? As loose as the whole thing is, you can hear everyone trying to hang on as tight as they can, not eager to give into the joke but instead wanting to embrace the possibilities. That, of course, is the legend of the Replacements splayed out before your ears and the roadmap for a record that takes the listener on an emotional ride of adolescent proportions.
At just under two minutes, “Hootenanny” comes to an end as “Run It,” all 71 seconds of it enters the room like an enchanted broom and mop to clean up the mess. It’s everything its predecessor isn’t: Precise, passionate and purposeful. Westerberg and Bob Stinson work their combustible guitar magic throughout, with Stinson offering the kind of lead lines that would have sounded lost and out of tune in any other band but here sound like a revelation of pain and frustration. There is a need to get somewhere and it’s not just to the end of the piece. Stinson wants to propel us to the destination that Westerberg hints at in the lyrics as he exclaims “Run it!”
Like many of Westerberg’s best early songs, this is straight reportage, a vestige of the night that Mars tried to outrun cops on his motorcycle with Westerberg (at least for a time) hanging on for dear life. It’s also a celebration of the unit’s renegade spirit. Bob Stinson was reportedly fond of shouting, “Close your eyes and floor it!” whenever he and the others found themselves stuck in traffic. Nowhere is that ethic more apparent on this album.
But “Run It” still has the punk-ish tendencies of Sorry Ma, whereas the third cut on the record, “Color Me Impressed,” is Westerberg at his finest. “Everybody’s dressin’ funny/ They all looked depressed,” serves as an indictment of scene pretensions while the singer pummels listeners with a hook that reminds us how unimpressed he can be. There are nods to budding cocaine habits via crisp dollar bills and mirrors and a question for the ages, repeated enough times to make an impression: “Can you stand me/ On my feet?” More than a plea from an inebriated soul, it’s also an interrogative passed between two lovers or two friends: Can you embrace the real me?
If “Color Me Impressed” is the party gone awry, then “Willpower,” with its artsy echoes and seemingly disturbing lyrics about the inability to control impulses, is the melancholy-laced hangover. Sandwiched between two of the best rockers on the first side (“Take Me Down to The Hospital” arrives next), it’s both a clever segue and a muted cry for help.
From there, Hootenanny devolves into the barely controlled chaos that its opener promised. The band riffs on “Strawberry Fields Forever” and spasms around like speed freaks on a chorus about the bed spins before returning for an “Oh! Darling”-style go at sanity before abandoning the tune altogether.
The second side opens with a curiosity, a song that Westerberg penned alone and with little thought about how the others would take it. “Within Your Reach” relies on the rigid rhythms of a primitive drum machine and the author’s bare bones guitar lines and lyrics. That musical nakedness and the honesty of the lyrics with confessions of being ill-traveled and unschooled make it the perfect counterpoint to the barbaric yawping that takes place throughout, including on the boogie number, “Lovelines,” which finds Westerberg reading singles ads from a local paper verbatim.
“Lovelines” is scattered among the mostly instrumental “Buck Hill” and two attempts at recapturing the devil-may-care attitude of Sorry Ma. Instead, we can hear them for what they are: Attempts to get out of the kitchen before the emotional heat can fully set in.
If you thought these guys were going to smarten up or get sober, you were wrong and the closing “Treatment Bound,” with lines about getting “shitfaced drunk” upon arriving in any new town, reminds us of that. It’s also the perfect end for a record that can never make up its mind as to whether it’s earnest or ironic, pensive or playful. And, really, there’s nothing a Replacements fan could want more.