PAUL WESTERBERG Stereo (Vagrant/B-Unique)
"Stereo" is the fourth solo album by former Replacement Paul Westerberg, and it's utterly fabulous. The artist describes it as "songs written and recorded at home cut mostly live in the middle of the night, no effort was made to fix what some may deem as mistakes; tape running out, fluffed lyrics, flat notes, extraneous noises, etc.". And, of course, it doesn't matter in the slightest.
"Baby Learns To Crawl" has the kind of instant intensity and six-string attack only rarely encountered in my infrequent excursions through the man's back catalogue - The Replacement's glistening "Talent Show" is probably all that comes close to it. On my first listen I kept hoping that a drummer wouldn't come thudding in and spoil the rapidly escalating tension, and sure enough no one does. The icing on the cake is a fabulously wheezy accordion accompaniment.
On "Dirt To Mud" Westerberg lends a folksier, circa-"The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" rasp to both song and performance. "Only Lie Worth Telling" is another hitter, a too-many-gone exhortation to the satisfying of physical need, where the only lie worth telling is "I'm in love with you". The drummer finally gives it some on "No Place For You", but it's alright because the song is a broody Westerberg classic, almost an oblique rock 'n' roll reinterpretation of Mary-Chapin Carpenter's "He Thinks He'll Keep Her". "Boring Enormous" is as strange as its title, with lines like "The coffee laughs at us every morning", although it's as delightful as the rest of the album, highlighting the thread that draws these songs together: they're all portraits of people defeated by life in some way, and just passing through.
"Stereo" arrives packaged with a free album by Grandpaboy, Westerberg's alter ego, called, not illogically, "Mono". (And yes, it actually is!) As the man says, "This is rock 'n' roll, recorded poorly, played in a hurry, with sweaty hands and unsure reason". The nonsensical credits and Westerberg's assertion that "who played what is irrelevant" might be intentional smoke and mirrors trickery to deflect the rumour that former Replacements guitarist Bob Stinson appears on these tracks, but nothing can disguise the fact that "Mono" is far closer in spirit to the ragged electric glory of his old band than "Stereo" ever gets. It's enjoyable enough, but somewhat big, dumb and one-dimensional after the glories of "Stereo", which, for some , might be the attraction. Certainly "Let's Not Belong" has an undeniable, sloppy but tight rock 'n' roll power, and having written a chorus as perfect as "With your eyes like sparks/And my heart like gasoline" (on "Eyes Like Sparks", naturally enough) Westerberg is forever forgiven for not coming up with any verses to go with it. But "Stereo" is the main attraction here, and it's a terrific slab of battered but optimistic American rock music.