Around the thirtieth anniversary of The Replacements’ final studio album, All Shook Down (released 9/25/90), it’s not altogether implausible to think their rabid following of music lovers and musicians alike as nigh-on idolatry. Why else would a scrupulously researched and written book (Bob Mehr’s Trouble Boys) be published about the group as well as a movie produced in which none of the group’s music was used (Color Me Impressed)? Or why the most steadfast of the ‘Mats (as they’ve been nicknamed) accede to reunions –more than once–only to have the reformations fragment because of the same almost violent ambivalence about celebrity that originally rent the Minneapolis foursome?
The answer may lie in the same rationale behind the recorded work of a band with scant commercial success that’s nevertheless has seen extensive archiving of its catalog the likes of which is usually reserved for artists with larger bodies of work and more broad cultural significance: the four-disc set of Dead Man’s Pop and the 3-CD/1-LP set of Pleased To Meet Me follow expanded CD versions of catalog in 2008. The music of the Replacements brims with seeds of imagination sown seemingly at random, especially in the early days, as if without thought to proper care and nurturing and yet, the group’s music still blossomed, almost against the will of its creators.
Take All Shook Down, the final ‘Mats effort which may qualify as such in name only and was so designated for the sake of their label at the time Sire Records. In its most recent incarnation as a physical release, it is almost twice as long as originally issued with twenty-four tracks compared to the original baker’s dozen. None of the extras, including those eight previously unreleased, sound anywhere near equal to or superior to the thirteen cuts as first issued. Still, these demos, as well as the small handful that first appeared on an EP (Don’t Sell Or Buy, It’s Crap), point up what an excellent record this is on its own terms, albeit a carefully-tempered one (to the further dismay of punkoid/purist followers from the band’s early days on Twin/Tone Records).
And, in truth, why wouldn’t it be, aside from the fact the final fragmenting of the foursome was in progress? Intransigent as they were at their core, The Replacement always did the best they could making their records and in 1990 had accumulated nearly a decade of experience how to record and in various settings to boot: their collaborators had included Tommy Ramone on their first outing for Sire Records, Tim, and the late Dixie rock and blues music visionary Jim Dickinson for Pleased to Meet Me, recorded in the Ardent Studios of Memphis (creative headquarters of hometown heroes Big Star, immortalized on “Alex Chilton”).
Paul Westerberg had initially conceived the LP as a solo work and so began his co-production with Scott Litt, who’d worked on R.E.M.’s most successful all-around records including their arguable apex Document. It’s a testament to their extensive preparation that, though ‘Mats’ members-only appeared sporadically (supplanted by various additional players during the sessions), the album flows like the work of a band ripe in its maturity yet willing to stretch itself. As such, the swaggering, delightfully catchy likes of “Merry Go Round” begins the baker’s dozen track sequence just as “My Little Problem” ends it—almost. “The Last” is a piano ballad cum torch song that recalls the novel sounds sprinkled throughout the middle of the record—viola from the Velvet Underground’s John Cale, organ by Benmont Tench of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers—all of which follows, as if by design, the poignant “Sadly Beautiful” where acoustic (!?) guitar tones echo like the bittersweet lyrics.
That tune alone certifies how the titular leader of the Replacements had come into his own as a songwriter. Yet this man once so self-effacing to a fault has developed the confidence not to belabor the metaphorical implications in “Someone Take the Wheel,” this title song and “Happy Town.” The author’s matter-of-fact vocal delivery matches his plainspoken words, so it’s hardly a surprise his writing resonates so deeply with those who revere him. Likewise, in a song like “One Wink At A Time,” Paul captures nuances of personality and emotion in the carefully-wrought language of a composer who’s worked assiduously at the craft.
There may be no more beloved–or lovable group–in contemporary rock history than the Replacements and All Shook Down offers more than a little evidence why, from the oblique homage to Elvis in its title to the resoundingly remastered music to the extensive annotation (by Peter Jesperson, co-founder of the aforementioned indie label and eventual manager of the group). The devotion the quartet still receives to this day is nothing so base as an audience merely identifying with the inebriated likes of the band on-stage or even its members’ self-destructive streak; this particular brand of loyalty is more about searching (desperately?) for some sort of enlightenment in life and perhaps even an epiphany once in a while. After all, the quartet itself found a few of the latter on stage, at least sometimes–see For Sale: Live @ Maxwell’s 1986 or The Complete Inconcerated (as enclosed in the aforementioned 2019 box set).
Above all, though, identifying with the ‘Mats arises from securing at least some connections that endure, wobbly though they may be at times. Without such bonds, who hasn’t looked as lost and forlorn as the two pups pictured on the front cover of All Shook Down?