The reissue of the year, a work of restoration that salvages the reputation of its subject.
The Replacements’ penultimate album, 1989’s Don’t Tell a Soul, came at the end of an unbroken string of college rock classics that saw the band grow from deceptively hook-laden hardcore punk to stylistically far-reaching alt pioneers who managed to retain their snarl in the face of their own deepening talent and even the machinations of the major label that snapped them up. But the group’s sixth LP ultimately came to signify the beginning of the end, the moment that befell so many indie bands of the ‘80s and ‘90s of a group’s natural spark being snuffed by a label that signed them only to remake them into something generically appealing. In particular, the album’s mix, with its ‘80s gloss and reverb, dates the record in sharp contrast to the timeless swagger rock of the band’s earlier material. Paul Westerberg’s lyrics remained as sharp as ever, and movingly directed at new themes of aging and defeat, but the record has always seemed like the writing on the wall for the Mats.
Westerberg’s own dissatisfaction with Chris Lord-Alge’s mix has been clearly stated from the moment of the album’s release, and for the LP’s 30th anniversary, he finally resolved to set things right. The original producer, Matt Wallace, returned to his tapes of the material and gave Don’t Tell a Soul a remix more in line with his and the band’s original vision for the music. This remixed, and resequenced, version of the LP is the backbone of Dead Man’s Pop, a four-disc box set that represents one of the most significant acts of artistic self-preservation of recent years. Rhino did a disservice to the band with their last round of remasters in 2008, brickwalling albums with Loudness Wars compression and, in some cases, even tampering with recordings to remove some of the band’s charming little snippets of studio talk and false starts that added to their ramshackle image.
But this remix, which trades flattening, trendy effects for something more minimal and organic, gives new life to the material, emphasizing the softer beauty of Westerberg’s shifting and maturing perspective while also highlighting the classic Mats punk that was always buried in the original album. At times, the differences are startling. “Achin’ to Be,” once a cavern of reverb swallowed by front-mixed drums, has been pared back to foreground the twang in Westerberg and new bandmate Bob “Slim” Dunlap’s guitars, and the weariness in Westeberg’s brittle vocal is now the dominant focal point of the track as it always should have been. “We’ll Inherit the Earth” sounds like a completely different song, trading the original’s slow-burn new wave for a rawer punk snarl that could have placed the track comfortably on Tim or Pleased to Meet Me. Generally speaking, the Wallace mix is more energetic, but also more attuned to the band’s softer side, clarifying Don’t Tell a Soul as the group’s purest foray into power pop.
On its own, the Wallace mix would be the reissue of the year, a work of restoration that salvages the reputation of its subject. But Rhino goes even further with three more discs of relevant material. The second disc contains the aborted Bearsville sessions with Tony Berg, sessions supposedly so disastrous that the band and producer were at each other’s throats within a week. Listening to these early run-throughs paints yet another picture of the final album’s songs, here done in punkish bursts that hedges closer to the band’s classic sound than Westerberg’s increasing pop leanings. As is so often the case with the Mats, there are tracks here that never made it past the demo stage that most of their peers would have killed to release; “Portland” is a rock-bottom gutter jam that sounds like the Mats recording their Basement Tapes, and “Wake Up” is caterwauling punk that could have come right off their debut but for a polish that amusingly could have slotted them ahead of the pack for the ‘90s pop punk explosion. There are also tracks from a session in which Tom Waits dropped in on the group to express his fandom, leading to some jams between Waits, Westerberg and their mutual friend, Jack Daniels. These slurred, sluggish numbers are the furthest thing from supergroup magic, but there’s a certain morbid fascination to hearing two of the finest songwriters of their time make an absolute shambles.
The meatiest extra, though, lies in the final two discs, the full recording of a Milwaukee show from which a promo EP, Inconcerated Live, was culled. So much of Replacements lore is tied up in their live act, both in its reputation for cantankerous, slovenly energy and, as a result, the lack of reliable documents of said performances. Yet a mere two years after the band unearthed their outstanding 1986 show in New Jersey, they offer another definitive live document, this time of the Dunlap era. Where the Maxwell’s release galloped through the band’s history up to Tim, bridging their hardcore beginnings with their burgeoning mastery of alternative pop, The Complete Inconcerated Live is a showcase for that pop prowess. The band plays slower and more melodically than they did with Bob Stinson, but there is nonetheless an added snarl here that puts Pleased to Meet Me and Don’t Tell a Soul songs more in line with Let It Be and Tim. As with the Maxwell’s show, you get the best possible showcase for the band, which is to say they stay just sober enough to remember the songs until the very end. Complete with some judicious covers (including a barnstorming rendition of The Only Ones’ “Another Girl, Another Planet”), this is as crucial a glimpse into the band’s best potential on-stage as the Maxwell’s release, and as worthy an addition to the Mats’ discography as the remixed studio album it accompanies.
It has never been difficult to hear the promise in Don’t Tell a Soul, but for decades it has been locked behind the veil of potential, an album to be defended rather than championed. Dead Man’s Pop flips that script, presenting the album without its compromises to let the strength of its vision shine. What once sounded like the Replacements’ capitulation to big label interference can now be more clearly appreciated as Westerberg’s attempt to make his own Big Star record. The Replacements story still ends with a whimper (no amount of studio re-tinkering will ever rescue All Shook Down from its ramshackle, quasi-solo album mess), but now the group’s already exemplary discography can defiantly stake out one last classic.