Sunday, August 31, 2008

In the future Paul Westerberg will be famous again for 49 minutes (and one second).

On Saturday, July 19, Paul Westerberg released 49:00 through, charging only 49 cents for his latest album. Except it's not really an album—it's a single MP3, with no track listing and no breaks between songs, and some of the songs are just fragments, with one fragment playing on top of another in certain spots. 49:00 isn't 49 minutes long, either—it lasts 43 minutes and 55 seconds. But Westerberg is 49 years old. Except he's not—he turns 49 later this year.

Paul Westerberg is a mystery wrapped in a riddle, smothered with beef and cheese inside a crunchy enigma shell.

On Tuesday, August 5, Westerberg completed the puzzle, at least in terms of 49:00's length: he released a new MP3 called "5:05," which can be bought at for either 99 cents or $5.05, depending on how much you want to support Westerberg, I guess. Add 5:05 to 43:55 and you've got 49 minutes. Except "5:05" actually runs five minutes and six seconds. Intentional? I'm not sure.

Amazon stopped offering 49:00 for purchase on Thursday, July 31, after less than two weeks, supposedly because Westerberg infringed on some copyrights by covering the Beatles' "Hello Goodbye," Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild," and Elton John's "Rocket Man," though only a few seconds of each song are heard. (In the last few seconds of "5:05," he sings the first line of the Beatles' "Oh! Darling," which J. Neas at Aquarium Drunkard sees as a sly acknowledgment of 49:00 being pulled as well as a reminder from Westerberg that his old band, the Replacements, copied the melody of "Oh! Darling" note for note in their song "Mr. Whirly" 25 years ago.) He does sing the majority of the Partridge Family's "I Think I Love You," an example of the type of AM bubblegum Westerberg fell in love with as a child. Could it be that Reuben Kincaid is behind all this?

No one seems to know the real reason for 49:00's disappearance from the digital marketplace, but it wasn't sold as a "protected" MP3 like the kind you buy from iTunes, which means anyone can e-mail it to their friends and post it on their websites, making it a collector's item only in spirit.

Earlier this week Westerberg released two new MP3s to add to the mystery of his recent output: "Finally Here Once" is three minutes and 27 seconds long, and "3oclockreep" runs 20 minutes and eight seconds, which qualifies it for status as an EP all by itself, if you ask me. They can be bought together for $3.99 at Tunecore. When "5:05" was released and made available for 99 cents or $5.05, 49:00 had already been removed from Amazon, leading some buyers to think that if they paid $5.05 at Tunecore they'd receive 49:00 in addition to "5:05." They didn't. They paid more than five dollars for one song. Westerberg's funny that way.

I haven't heard the two new releases, but I did buy 49:00 in July, and I got "5:05" for free off of a music blog. Sorry, Paul, but the irony is that I wouldn't have minded paying 99 cents for "5:05," since it's better than anything on "43:55."

Not that I'm complaining about paying 49 cents for an album-length MP3. But 49:00's most memorable hooks are provided by another Paul—McCartney—and a fake band created for a TV sitcom almost 40 years ago. I thought I remembered reading an interview with Westerberg last spring, when the first wave of Replacements reissues came out, in which he said that he didn't have plans for a new album but that he had recorded a bunch of new material and passed it along to his manager to see what he wanted to do with it. Maybe I imagined that. But in an interview with in April, Westerberg did say that his manager and he "are kicking around the idea of selling the [new] songs online, having like a song of the month club. That might be the best way."

Well, 49:00 does contain some songs, but I'd rather hear a proper album and pay $12 for it. The last one Westerberg recorded, Folker, came out in 2004, and though it has its share of filler like any other Westerberg album (he's the first to admit it), songs like "Anyway's All Right," "What About Mine?," and "Folk Star" are as good as anything he's recorded since the Replacements broke up in 1991, and "My Dad," a tribute to his father, who died in 2003, is a genuine tearjerker that avoids cheap sentiment.

Westerberg is the best lyricist of his generation, and "As Far as I Know," my favorite song on Folker, shows he hasn't lost his gift: "I'm in love with a face that I've never seen / Once upon a place, long time ago / I'm in love with a time that never took place, that's easy to trace / As far as I know." For anyone who's ever worried that they'll never find "the one" or worried that they've already peaked in life and it's all downhill from here, Westerberg elegantly reminds us that "the one" is a myth and the glory years we long to return to have been filtered through the forgiving haze of nostalgia. The title of the Replacements' 2006 best-of sums up that second point the best: Don't You Know Who I Think I Was?

Folker was the fifth album Westerberg had put out in a span of just over two years: Stereo and Mono were released in 2002, and Come Feel Me Tremble and Dead Man Shake came out the following year. Mono and Dead Man Shake bore the name of Westerberg's pseudonym, Grandpaboy, which he uses when he wants to release some lo-fi, ballad-free "rawk." But almost everything Westerberg's released since 2002, either under his own name or Grandpaboy's, has been pretty down and dirty, even the ballads. He records by himself in his basement at home in Minneapolis, generally using the first take, even if the tape runs out before the end of the song, like on Stereo's "Don't Want Never." Even 1996's Eventually, which seems to be considered the slickest of Westerberg's solo albums by critics and fans, includes a major flub that thankfully wasn't edited out: on "Hide N Seekin'," there's a long pause between the first and second verses, as if Westerberg has forgotten the words.

49:00 takes the DIY warts-and-all aesthetic as far as it should probably go, even if Westerberg does sound like he's having fun layering those song fragments on top of each other and skipping from one to another, creating the illusion of a radio dial being controlled by an impatient listener. Impatient for a memorable song, maybe?

Westerberg has said that he has attention deficit disorder, so this approach feels honest, but it doesn't compare with, say, the song suite on the second side of the Beatles' Abbey Road, or a real ADD-style album-length masterpiece like Todd Rundgren's A Wizard, a True Star (1973). On that album the listener is left with the impression that the artist has so many wonderful melodies in his head that he wants to get them all out right now before he forgets any of them, not that he's reached a dead end after only 60 seconds and is moving on because he's bored and thinks you probably are too. In the end 49:00 feels like an experiment, a storage shed of random thoughts being emptied out.

I assume that artists like Westerberg enjoy the freedom of releasing their music when they want in whatever format they want, without a record label telling them, "Your new album is amazing! Oh my God, Paul, you've outdone yourself. Seriously. No, really. But this one's going to need special care on the marketing side, so we're going to put it on the shelf for now, and we'll let you know once we've come up with a good strategy for selling it, okay?"

But the more I hear self-distributed music like 49:00, or Josh Rouse's last two albums, which were distributed through the Nettwerk label but paid for by Rouse, I wish these artists did have a label questioning some of their decisions and saying, "I don't hear a single." That sort of thing drives artists mad—always has, always will—but creative tension between artist and label, or artist and producer, can often lead to stellar results.

Geffen Records financed Aimee Mann's Bachelor No. 2 but never released it. When it finally came out in 2000, after several years on the shelf, it was through Mann's own label, SuperEgo. Near the end of 1995 Mann released her second solo album, I'm With Stupid, through Geffen, but it'd been financed by Imago Records, which went bankrupt in 1993 right after releasing her first album, Whatever. It took two years for Mann to get out of her contract with Imago and shop I'm With Stupid to other labels. (The album's title was a dig at Imago, though Mann would soon be calling Geffen stupid as well.) Previously she'd been absent from the music scene for three years as she attempted to get out of her contract with Epic Records, the label she was on with her former band, 'Til Tuesday.

It's easy to see why Mann doesn't like dealing with major labels; anger and frustration sometimes lead to creative breakthroughs, but not many artists willingly seek out collaborators or superiors who want to infuriate them. After Geffen executives heard Bachelor No. 2 for the first time and didn't like what they heard, they sent Mann back to the studio to record some potential singles. She came up with "Red Vines" and "Nothing Is Good Enough," the latter a relationship song that was also directed at Geffen ("Nothing is good enough for people like you / Who have to have someone take the fall / And something to sabotage / Determined to lose it all").

The thing is, those are two of the best songs on Bachelor No. 2. Mann had been forced to come up with new songs that could be played on the radio, and even if they didn't get played, she still succeeded in creating pop singles that didn't compromise or betray her songwriting talents. The push-pull had worked.

(Other successful examples of push-pull between artist and label are Wheat's sole release on Columbia Records, the 2003 album Per Second, Per Second, Per Second ... Every Second and Sara Bareilles's "Love Song," a 2007 single that's still going strong on radio this year, but it wouldn't even exist if Bareilles hadn't been asked by Columbia's sister label, Epic, to deliver a certain kind of single; she responded with an irresistible melody and ironic lyrics: "I'm not gonna write you a love song / 'Cause you asked for it / 'Cause you need one, you see.")

But when Geffen's parent company, Seagram Universal, bought Polygram in 1998 and consolidated its old and new assets, Geffen was lumped into a trio with Interscope Records and A&M Records. When Interscope-Geffen-A&M chairman Jimmy Iovine heard Bachelor No. 2 in 1999, he reportedly said, according to Mann, "Aimee doesn't expect us to put this record out as it is, does she? If Aimee just wants to put out a record for her fans, this is not the place to do it."

So she left, luckily without all the legal hassles she'd had when she left Epic and Imago, plus she now had an Oscar nomination for Best Song thanks to "Save Me," from the movie Magnolia (1999), whose hit soundtrack featured nine songs by Mann, four of which reappeared on Bachelor No. 2 six months later. Magnolia's writer-director, Paul Thomas Anderson, said he originally conceived of the soundtrack as an Aimee Mann mix tape because he was such a big fan of her work, even using a variation on the opening lines of her song "Deathly"—"Now that I've met you / Would you object to / Never seeing each other again?"—as dialogue in the film.

(I saw Mann on her "Acoustic Vaudeville" tour with Michael Penn and comedian Patton Oswalt shortly after Bachelor No. 2 came out. Worst concert experience of my life thanks to two women almost getting into a fight while Mann was singing "Wise Up." How appropriate. But the woman who started the fight was right, and the offending loud woman and her loud yuppie-scum friends left before the encore, even though it was clear they were there to hear just two songs, 'Til Tuesday's "Voices Carry" and Michael Penn's "No Myth." Both were played during the encore. Ha!)

Bachelor No. 2 earned a lot of critical acclaim, and Mann's follow-up, 2002's Lost in Space, was recorded and released without any label interference whatsoever. It also happened to be really really dull.

I'll admit that by the fall of '02 I'd gotten over the quarter-life malaise that'd attracted me to Mann's music in the first place, but if I'd been a label head at that time and she'd tried to pass Lost in Space off on me, I would've told her, "Sorry, but I only hear two or three songs worth keeping."

Rick Rubin, one of the music industry's most successful producers over the past 20 years, said in a New York Times profile last September that when artists come to him with new songs they've written, "Most people will write 10 songs and think, That's enough for a record, I'm done. When they play the songs for me, invariably the last two songs they've written are the best. I'll then say, 'You have two songs, go back and write eight more.'"

I can imagine that's painful for any artist to hear, whether a newbie or a veteran, but if it pushes the artist to dig deeper for better lyrics or melodies, he or she will be grateful in the end for the creative push, right? Well, maybe. Sometimes the end result isn't worth the pain that can go hand in hand with the creative process. I don't think any musician can completely erase memories of heated arguments with bandmates or producers (though drugs can help), just as they can't judge their work objectively from the inside looking out the way a listener can from the opposite direction.

Westerberg has produced his own work all by himself since Stereo and Mono in '02, and even Don Was, who coproduced 1999's generally ignored Suicaine Gratifaction with Westerberg, ended up using several of the singer's home demos on the finished product. Westerberg knows what he's doing at this point, but I'd still like to hear a proper album. (Between Folker and 49:00 he recorded some songs for the soundtrack to Open Season, a 2006 animated film, and Don't You Know Who I Think I Was? The Best of the Replacements included two new songs—both "Message to the Boys" and "Pool & Dive" were written by Westerberg around the time of the Replacements' breakup in '91 and are terrific additions to the band's resumé, a far cry from lackluster pseudo-reunions like Big Star's 2005 album In Space.)

In an interview with's Joshua Klein in April, Westerberg said the Replacements' best producer was Matt Wallace, who produced 1989's Don't Tell a Soul. "With Matt Wallace, we'd do 48 takes but use take two ... After a couple of weeks he realized that first take we came rolling in and did was the one that captured it rather than have us play 50 takes hoping the 50th would be great. It was not that way with us, and still isn't for me."

Klein then said, "A lot of people seem to pick the Replacements album they heard first as their favorite, since your songwriting is so consistent from record to record. If someone heard Don't Tell a Soul first, I could even imagine that being their favorite Replacements album."

Good grief, Charlie Brown: "I could even imagine that being their favorite." As a matter of fact, the band's next-to-last LP is the first Replacements album I heard, way back in 1991, courtesy of my older brother, and in many ways it still is my favorite.

Once I really started digging into the Replacements' discography in college in '95 I read that Don't Tell a Soul is considered by critics and fans to be their weakest album, but I still like it more than 1985's Tim, and I'm glad Westerberg has defended it, saying that the final mix of the album, which gives the songs their all-too-'80s cavernous drum sound, is what dates it, not the songs themselves.

I don't think Rhino's reissue of Don't Tell a Soul, which comes out next month, will include a bonus disc of the entire album unmixed, but I wonder if such a copy exists, sort of like the 2003 Let It Be ... Naked reissue of the Beatles' Let It Be, which stripped away Phil Spector's wall-of-sound production from the original album. (Of course, the Replacements recorded their own album called Let It Be in 1984, using that title as a nothing-is-sacred joke on their manager-producer, Peter Jesperson, a huge Beatles fan, but also because titles can't be copyrighted.)

Some fans saw Don't Tell a Soul as the Replacements' first blatant attempt at reaching for a radio hit, and "I'll Be You," one of their best songs, did reach #51 on the Billboard Hot 100. But as Joshua Klein acknowledged, the songwriting on Don't didn't deviate from previous releases, though Westerberg's writing did mature with each new release. It's a great album. Don't let that big-bam-boom drum sound fool you.

Besides, by the time Don't Tell a Soul came out, the Replacements were finally sobering up and delivering the kind of concert performances that fans of their music, not the rubberneckers who just wanted to see them fall down drunk onstage, had always hoped they could give on a consistent basis.

Or so I'd like to think.* After all, I was 13 at the time. I admit that it would've been something of a thrill to go to one of their shows and have absolutely no idea whether it was going to be a triumph or a disaster, but as bassist Tommy Stinson said in his own interview with in April, "When I get people coming up to me saying, 'I saw this show back when, and you guys were so f*cked up. You didn't even play any of your songs. It was the greatest show I ever saw' [laughs]. It's like, 'Well, dude, that just sounds bleak. How could that possibly have been the greatest show you ever saw? You must be really living a small life.'"

And as Klein pointed out in his Pitchfork interview with Westerberg, "When you were on, you disappointed the people who came to see you sloppy and falling down. When you were sloppy and falling down, you disappointed the people who came to see you on. You could never make everybody happy." Westerberg replied, "Lots of times we would try to balance it. We'd get up there wasted, but by the end of the set we'd sober up." He laughed, "We'd bring it together at the end!"

The best Replacements bootleg I know of is Shit, Shower & Shave. It contains portions of two concerts from the second leg of the Don't Tell a Soul tour, which found the band opening (unhappily, according to them) for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. Six songs from the band's show on August 28, 1989, in Mansfield, Massachusetts, are included, as are 12 songs from the August 31 show in Bristol, Connecticut. (Happy 19th birthday, Bristol show!)

The Replacements sound terrific on both sets, especially the August 31 show, as they storm their way through classics like "Bastards of Young," "Alex Chilton," and "I'll Be You," while "The Ledge" sounds much more urgent live than it did on 1987's Pleased to Meet Me. Their cover of Chuck Berry's "Around and Around" (titled "Round and Round" on the back cover of Shit, Shower & Shave, like David Bowie's version) has a swagger I don't think they could have managed if they'd been wasted. Here they don't end songs early like on bootlegs I've heard from the Tim and Pleased to Meet Me tours, where they're too drunk to remember all the chords and lyrics and try to blame the lighting guy for breaking their concentration.

They're also funnier when they're sober. For instance, when Stinson does pass along some constructive criticism to the lighting guy, it's "Hey, Joe, I don't want no spotlights tonight. I don't feel very pret-ty." And right before "Around and Around," which the Rolling Stones covered on 12 x 5 in 1964, Westerberg tells the crowd, "The Rolling Stones are playing in Philadelphia tonight. But we're better, so fuck 'em."

During "Nightclub Jitters"—the Replacements do stumble their way through this one, but it's charming, not frustrating—Stinson does his Axl Rose impression, which he repeated at the Replacements' final show in Chicago on July 4, 1991, captured on the It Ain't Over 'Til the Fat Roadies Play bootleg. (Chris Mars had angrily left the band before their final tour. He was replaced by Steve Foley, who died of an accidental overdose of prescription medication last weekend in Minneapolis.) Ironically, in 1998 Stinson joined Rose's band, Guns n' Roses, whose new album still hasn't been released, even though recording allegedly began in 1995. Stinson told reporters earlier in the decade that the eccentric Rose is much easier to work with than Westerberg, who replied in an interview with Harp magazine in 2004, "Wouldn't Van Gogh be more difficult than Norman Rockwell?"

The bootleggers behind Shit, Shower & Shave were also nice enough to include the entire Inconcerated promotional EP from Sire Records that came out in '89 after Don't Tell a Soul was released. It includes five songs recorded at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee on June 2, 1989. (I bought Shit, Shower & Shave six years ago in Athens, Georgia. Come to think of it, I bought it on Friday, August 30, 2002. Happy belated sixth birthday, 8/30/02! Who knew there'd be so many birthdays to celebrate today ...)

I'll end this long, long one-sided conversation with one final quote from Westerberg, who told Joshua Klein that the trick to making timeless music "is doing it in a hurry without thinking about it." 49:00 certainly doesn't sound like it was fussed over for very long, but Westerberg's written so much timeless music, especially as the Replacements' frontman, that I can easily forgive him for a time-consuming, interference-free head-scratcher or two every now and then.

* I thought wrong. According to Bob Mehr's terrific biography, Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements (Da Capo Press, 2016), Chris Mars had started to sober up by the time of the Don't Tell a Soul tour, but the rest of the band was still drinking heavily. Westerberg wasn't sober until the band's tour to support All Shook Down, its final album, in 1991.

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