REVIEWS

PAUL WESTERBERG
Stereo/Mono (Vagrant)

 

No matter how much you’ve read that Stereo was recorded in Paul Westerberg’s basement and a lo-fi recording at that, nothing’s going to prepare you for the abrupt end to the second track, Dirt To Mud, or the ninth track, Don’t Want Never.

As the former Replacement says on the sleeve: "What you have here are songs written and recorded at home over a two-year period… No effort was made to fix what some may deem as mistakes; tape running out, fluffed lyrics, flat notes…"

As a recording artist, 1998’s Suicaine Gratifaction must be a low point for Westerberg. The muted sounds of the album and the lacklustre material probably show Westerberg trying to meet some contractual obligation rather than him pushing any musical boundaries. But then again, Paul Westerberg and The Replacements weren’t so much about breaking boundaries as creating a rocking good time.

This time, instead of a single album, there are two — Stereo, made up of the slower songs (ideal for those who have a soft spot for Westerberg’s ballads) with the rocker handling all the instruments, and Mono, under the Grandpaboy moniker, more rocking, with a backing band and a fuller sound. Unlike Eminem who operates under three aliases with clear-enough identities, the Westerberg/Grandpaboy divide isn’t clear at all other than a rocking vs non-rocking side. So much for the formalities, but the "hiatus" seems to have done Westerberg (or at least his fans) a world of good.

It doesn’t take very long for Stereo/Mono to become as comfortable as a well-worn glove and a satisfying one at that, warts and all notwithstanding. In terms of listening pleasure and satisfaction level, it probably ranks alongside Eventually.

Both Stereo and Mono open promisingly, Stereo has Baby Learns To Crawl (here Westerberg joining the list of luminaries who have penned songs for their offspring) and Dirt To Mud, while songs like Got You Down, No Place For You and Let The Bad Times Roll are so typically Mats-ish that it all has an air of old-time familiarity that is welcoming.

With only his guitar, tracks like Boring Enormous and Nothing To No One (even with a slide guitar) may sound like Westerberg doing a John Denver. But unlike Denver’s paens to nature, Westerberg sings about lost love, unrequited love, heartaches and broken hearts. And as an observer, he is non-judgemental but you know he’s never going to pull you a fast one: "If you need someone/to tell everything you’ve done/then lie to me/I’m the one who can attempt/to be your friend" (Only Lie Worth Telling).

While fans note the Stones’ touch on Mono, tracks such as Anything But That and Knock It Right Out (a dead ringer for Cadillac Ranch?) recall Bruce Springsteen And The E-Street Band. Perhaps they are all drawing from the same well but with Westerberg’s now-familiar aching vocals and catchy songs such as Let’s Not Belong Together, Kickin’ The Stall and Between Love & Like plus biting lyrics — "You ought to be a silent film star/Keep that pretty little trap shut" (Silent Film Star) or "I ain’t got anything to say to anyone anymore" (AAA) — Mono is a decent romp that can somehow seem a tad too short!

While Stereo/Mono is good news for fans, it does highlight the dire state of roots rock/powerpop. If pretenders like The Goo Goo Dolls’ latest release, Gutterflower, could not muster enough muscle to create a big dent in the charts, what more an original like Paul Westerberg who has decided to return to the indie route (after spending time at Warner and Capitol)? On the down side, there doesn’t seem to be a big enough market for roots rock.

But this is where things get interesting. Westerberg knows he has a fan base, he can build on it and he has no need to play the numbers game with a major label. Think about it — which major label will allow Westerberg to release a double album of new songs?

If Stereo/Mono is about the gumption of a rocker making himself heard within his own terms (those infamous warts and all, only that Westerberg calls it: "Unprofessional? Perhaps. Real? Unquestionably," perhaps such albums will allow a next generation of fans to discover the healing powers of rock ‘n’ roll, and not the manufactured sounds that boy bands or nu-metalheads pass off as the real thing. As Westerberg says, "As long as there’s blood in my veins I will search…" — Stephen Tan

Note: The above was published in BigO #199 (July 2002).
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