Now thirty-five years old, The Replacements’ Pleased To Meet Me is something of a concession to the conventional—almost. Carrying on as a trio in the wake of firing original guitarist Bob Stinson, guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Paul Westerberg, bassist Tommy Stinson, and drummer Chris Mars worked somewhat begrudgingly under the aegis of producer Jim Dickinson, who brought in additional musicians for the sessions, assuming his responsibilities after a series of futile interviews for the position.
The father of North Mississippi Allstars’ linchpins Luther and Cody, Dickinson carried no little distinction as a musician as well as a producer. On the latter front, he had collaborated with the diverse likes of Mojo Nixon, Willy DeVille, and Green on Red among others, plus he contributed piano to the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses,” recorded in the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studios. It was thus only natural to yield to the ‘Mats’ insistence on Ardent in Memphis as the location of their sessions; it was also there that Dickinson had overseen Big Star’s album Third, a collaboration no more coincidental than the fact mythic foursome’s lineup included the object of a Paul Westerberg homage (“Alex Chilton”) on this second Sire album of the group’s.
Under the tutelage of the deceptively savvy Big Jim, the Replacements turned the title of their fifth studio album inside out and upside down. With the departure of long-time mentor/manager Peter Jesperson and the aforementioned firing of the Stinson, the group had to take a good look at itself and while they didn’t like everything they saw during this period–was there ever a time this band wasn’t in the throes of an identity crisis?–these rambunctious Minnesota natives came to terms with their situation, at least insofar as they accepted Dickinson’s unorthodox sculpting of multiple recordings into finished tracks.
Described in almost painful (but nonetheless sympathetic) detail by author Bob Mehr in his splendid book Trouble Boys, the process for this second effort of theirs on a ‘major’ label was oftentimes excruciatingly laborious in completing cuts like the aforementioned tribute to Chilton (who actually ended up playing on the album). But the carefully-tailored mix of acoustic and electric guitars, pumped along with due finesse by the rhythm section, is emblematic of what is the best ‘Mats album this side of Let It Be: it’s all just polished and professional enough, but still retains the essentially combustible nature of the core musicians.
Even the borderline-cheesy cocktail jazz strains of “Late Night Jitters” works as a vivid setting for songwriter Westerberg to admit his self-doubts. The quick turn of Prince Gabe’s saxophone there presaged the rousing sounds of The Memphis Horns that lifted ever higher the ebullient closer, “Can’t Hardly Wait” (where just a touch of strings from Max Huls brings out the requisite sense of trepidation hidden in the lyrics). But the impact of that final track of eleven (equaled in number by the bonus cuts on the expanded CD of 2008) proved a means to balance the palpable air of foreboding from “The Ledge,” a suicide scenario brought to fruition as much by the bass flute of veteran session man extraordinaire Steve Douglas as by the frenetic but precise guitar solo of Westerberg (who fashioned his style of the guitar after the late Duane Allman, among others).
Homage to the Minneapolis landmark, “Skyway” adds further contrast in sonics and attitude. A subdued number on which Westerberg sings as delicately as he strums an acoustic guitar (and East Memphis Slim adds vibes), this penultimate selection is an unselfconscious tangle of vulnerability and optimism. Such is the also the mindset arising from “Valentine,” but the band leaps along there, prodded by future Guns N’Roses recruit Stinson’s mobile bass anchored through Mars’ gigantic drum pulse (early on in this collaboration, Dickinson coached him to play much more steadily than he was naturally inclined).
As much punk as pop, yet with earthier influences than either genre naturally, sports, Pleased to Meet Me preceded two more Replacements studio albums (Don’t Tell A Soul and All Shook Down) on which creativity was almost as strained but not nearly so true to life. Here was a trio of self-styled misfits equally at ease in vigorously celebrating its fondness for (too much) alcohol (“Red Red Wine”) as (over?) emotionally defending its aversion to personal confrontation (“Never Mind”).
The ‘Mats’ devoted legion of fans can and will vociferously debate the merits of the various entries in the group’s discography. Still, it’s difficult if not impossible to conclude that, in making this LP three and a half decades ago, the steadfast threesome danced their way through the personal and professional crossroads they encountered.