Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Replacements : Pleased To Meet Me

(At one point, I call this a review, but it's not. It's a "love letter" to the album.)
I've never made it a secret that one of my favorite bands (if not my tip top favorite) is The Replacements. Maybe I should say "was" The Replacements, since they broke up about 20 or or so years back. They were a band that influenced grunge and the emerging "alternative" sound as it came alive in the early 90's. I never understood the concept of a band or a song getting mainstream radio play being called alternative. Alternative to what? The Replacements, Concrete Blonde, REM (for awhile at least), The Smiths, Sonic Youth, and The Cure were real alternative bands. They were making music that college kids and misfit teenagers alike, who were sick of hearing the overproduced and over exposed synth rock of New Wave and the bloated excess of popular rock, wanted to hear. It was real and much of it was raw. The Replacements were a band that started out worshipping punk hero's like Black Flag and the New York Dolls, but wound up moving towards the pop sensibility of say The Box Tops or the Stones at their ragged best. At times, it seems that their fans, record label, and media wanted them to be famous more than they did. The self sabotage is great rock n roll history and diving into "All Over But The Shouting" by Jim Walsh explains some of it quite well. Showing up to gigs drunk and playing horribly when the "suits" were there to see them, and then showing up the next night and tearing the roof off. Pissing off the executives at NBC so bad that they were banned for life from Saturday Night Live. Taunting censors at the AMA awards in the infamous "Talent Show" incident. It was who they were. They never seemed comfortable getting attention. They didn't understand how to deal with it. Perhaps the pressures of fame chasing them hastened their death as a band. Perhaps it was inevitable either way. That's history now though and their body of work is a progression that is interesting when viewed from the distance of time. I could write thousands of words about The Replacements, but I wouldn't be saying anything that hasn't been said before, so I'm going to review my favorite record by The Replacements; Pleased To Meet Me. 

If you are still with me, then you probably either care about The Replacements or want to learn more....or perhaps you are really bored. No matter why you are still reading, thanks for sticking around. Pleased To Meet Me Was released by Sire Records in 1987, so it's been 25 years since it hit the shelves. PTMM, as I will refer to the album from here on out, was the band's second major label record, after having put out four albums on the smaller, Minneapolis based label called Twin Tone Records. Many people consider the 1986 album Tim as their masterpiece, and with the music on that record it's hard to disagree. It was their major label debut and had several songs "Bastards Of Young", "Hold My Life", and "Left Of The Dial", that proved to be anthems for many young music lovers who were coming to grips with moving out of their teenage years at a time when everything from fashion to music seemed hollow or to have a dollar sign on it, including their rock n roll heroes. For me though, PTMM was their grandest, most accessible and dare I say, greatest album. Maybe it was because it was the album that my friend Brian forced upon me unlike anything else he ever asked me to try. I was a card carrying Beatles, Zeppelin, and Floyd guy. Alternative music? Bah. If it's not on the radio, it must be minor league music. Whoops. That still stings. I had the cassette tape that I was loaned for ten years before I gave it back. I listened to it begrudgingly at first. A track here. A track there. Then I decided to just leave it in the car cassette player for awhile. And it started getting through. It started speaking to me. And not just the album, but the band and the way they played. The way Paul Westerberg sang with ragged desperation. The way Tommy Stinson and Chris Mars drove the music through your soul like a hammer slamming a nail into wood. The sensible, sometimes fun, and sometimes sad song writing. This album led me to become a full fledged Replacements addict. I collected everything I could find, from music, to magazines, to VHS tapes of them, and finally into an underground tape trading circuit where (I also met some neat people and still correspond with them today; Rob, C9) I collected tons of great live music, demos and outtakes from my new obsession. 

Well, I can't help it I suppose. I keep going personal when I simply want to review the record. Oh, well, fuck it. It's my blog, right? How can I share anything about this album without telling you what the draw is? I can't. 

PTMM checks in at a frantic 33 minutes in length. The cover is a take on Elvis' GI Blues album cover and the depiction of a "suit" shaking hands with a someone who was obviously ragged plays into the title of the album. Was it showing The Replacements coming to terms with being a major label commodity? PTMM was produced by Jim Dickinson and was recorded in Memphis, Tennessee. The Memphis influence can be felt at times, especially when the famous Memphis Horns, and Alex Chilton lend their work to "Can't Hardly Wait", and Luther Dickinson (Black Crowes lead guitarist) puts his stamp on "Shooting Dirty Pool". To date, it was their most polished and technically savvy recording, but don't mistake that for clean and anti-septic. The songs have life and drive. 

First up on the album is "IOU". It starts the record off on a raucous note. Driving the guitar right down your throat from the get go and letting you know that you are listening to The Replacements. The lyrics, when dug into, seem to reject the fact that simply because the band is being pushed towards the bright lights, they still don't buy it. They do what they do and don't owe anyone a damn thing. The drumming by Chris Mars is not always technically proficient, but he really pushes the song with his relentless beat. 

The next song is an homage to Alex Chilton, a fantastic song writer, who was a member of the Box Tops (The Letter, Cry Like A Baby), and one of music's first "alternative" bands Big Star. Paul Westerberg was a big fan of Chilton's songwriting and was probably hoping to turn a new generation on to one of his heroes. The tempo of this song is infectious, as Mars does great work once again and Westerberg writes one of his best hooks ever; "I'm in love, what's that song? I'm in love, with that song". "Alex Chilton" is featured on the Rock Band video game, just as an FYI. 

"I Don't Know" is the Replacements showing their grit. Tommy Stinson, in my opinion, is the backbone of the music with his relentless bass, along with the subtle saxophone work. The lyrics, once again, seem to be a push back on "hitting it big". The line is "one foot in the door, the other one in the gutter". Westerberg realized they were just one step either way from being nothing or being something. There they were, stuck in the middle, with the door closing. 

Up next is "Nightclub Jitters". It's a nice slow down take on cocktail jazz. I feel guilty for not listening to it in a dark bar with a bourbon sitting in front of me. This is a song where Westerberg was exploring something different. It fits pretty well right in between "I Don't Know" and "The Ledge", acting as a bridge from pissed off rock n roll to a song with a conscious. "The Ledge" is Westerberg's taking on suicide. Because of its lyrical content, which is a stark look inside the mind of a disaffected youth who is ready to leap to his demise, it was banned from MTV and seemed a very strange choice for the albums first single. We are talking about The Replacements here, so why should anyone be shocked. The song doesn't give you a happy ending. The kid doesn't come to his senses. We get a look into his thoughts as people gather below and around him. There is no "movie" ending. "All the love, that they pledge, for the last time will not reach the ledge" I think Stinson does some of his best bass work on this song. 

"Never Mind" is yet another song that uncovers Westerberg's feelings that he doesn't want to be duped by the draw of being a pop star. If you don't invest in it, how can you be hurt? It's evident in later work that Paul Westerberg wanted to be a star, he just didn't possess the ability to jump in the water and throw caution to the wind. "Never Mind" gives way to one of the most underrated Westerberg songs ever. "Valentine" searches for something. There's a longing to the lyrics. I don't know of many songs that open with a better line about romanticism ripped away than "Well you wish upon a star, that turns into a plane". It doesn't get any more hopeless than that. This is such a great song that tears your heart out, I can't believe another band hasn't covered this. It has it all. Great beat. Rousing guitars. Heartfelt lyrics. 

"Shooting Diry Pool" and "Red Red Wine" are the obligatory "throw away rockers" and they fit right into the album. These are songs that in less than capable hands, could have been a drag on the record as a whole. Sometimes a band just mails in the filler material. The Replacements don't, and some credit probably goes to producer Jim Dickinson and his direction for the album as a whole. They treat their second tier songs with just as much fervor and love as their more notable tunes. You get what they want to give you. Most of the time, they give you what you want. "Shooting Dirty Pool" is a straightforward rocker with some really fun, soaring guitar work from Luther Dickinson of the Black Crowes. 

The album winds down with two of the bands greatest songs. "Skyway" is a soft, low key song about a person who has a longing for a woman he has seen, but never met, on the mass transit system. He dreams of meeting her, but can't quite find the nerve. Love is fleeting, especially when it's expressed from afar. A theme that Westerberg has hit more than once in his career. Notably on "Love Untold" from his solo record Eventually.

The only way to end this album was to save the best for last. "Can't Hardly Wait" features the Memphis Horns prominently, but their presence doesn't detract at all from the raw feeling of the album. There is a lot to love about this song. The lyrics are sublime. Westerberg longs for (and dreams of) home as he sits in a shitty hotel room (perhaps in Memphis?) somewhere on the road, far away from his hometown of Minneapolis. Lyrically it's hard to beat "I'll be home when I'm sleeping. I can't hardly wait" and "Hurry up, hurry up, ain't you had enough of this stuff? Ash tray floors, dirty clothes, and filthy jokes." Alex Chilton lends his guitar to this song and he carries it musically. The rest of the band plays in a controlled manner, with Stinson plucking away in unison with Mars' drum pace which is simple and patient. I've probably listened to this one a thousand times in my life. I never grow tired of it.

That's about it. Yeah, I could go on, but I don't really expect very many people to read this honestly. It's lengthy and the subject matter appeals to only a few. This was a labor of love. It's one of my favorite albums and it's hard to believe it's been 25 years since I was a clueless 18 year old, who latched on to something he didn't immediately understand, but knew felt right. The album only charted at 131, yet The Replacements following over the years has expanded enough to the point that Rhino released a remastered version (along with all the other Replacements albums) along with demos and outtakes. Even if the public, or you, didn't care about it, the fans and critics did. Famed critic Robert Christgau gave it an "A-", Pitchfork checks in with a 9.3 out of 10, the Rolling Stone Album Guide ranked it the fifth best album of 1987, and PunkNews.org rated it 4.5 out of 5.

 Perhaps the best review I have read about Pleased To Meet Me comes from David Fricke (Rolling Stone Magazine) who gave it a glowing review, saying "Tracks like "I.O.U." and "Shooting Dirty Pool" practically sound like Exile on Main Street at 78 rpm. It is ironic that Westerberg and the Replacements can make such a joyful noise out of so much anguish and insecurity. But on Pleased to Meet Me, the pleasure is all yours." Fricke got it, way back in 1987. And yes, the pleasure has been all mine! 

Thanks for reading.


Sunday, June 24, 2012

Observe & Report: A bipolar film review

I'm sort of a Seth Rogen fan. I wouldn't say that I consider him a top shelf actor like Bale, DeNiro, or DeCaprio, but he's good enough at being the slightly off kilter "every man" that he's interesting in his roles. He has the gift of making his lines seem like real conversation, rather than a heightened sense of what the world is like, set within the illusion of a film's reality. It suits him well in roles that he has played in "Knocked Up" and "Pineapple Express" as well as others. 

In the much maligned film "Observe & Report", he still has that going for him, but it's not abundant. There were a lot of Rogen fans and fans of the Apatow style that were unhappy with the film, Rogen, and director Jody Hill. I'm not one of those people. The first time I saw the film, I was admittedly underwhelmed. I purchased it, sight unseen, mostly because of Rogen, Anna Faris, and Ray Liotta. I let it set for a month or so and decided to watch it again. 

As soon as the film started turning dark, the light went on for me. This isn't a comedy at all in the sense of being a mindless knee slapper.  It's a case study, and a close up look at a mentally ill twenty-something that has had to learn how to be a man and find his way without the help of a stable home life and under the burden of bi-polar disorder. Rogen's character "Ronnie" seems harmless enough and over the top for most of the film. His misinterpretation and fundamental lack of understanding when he is being put on or put down leads to him believing that he should become a police officer. It's at that point, when he stops taking his meds, and is feeling the euphoric high that a person with bi-polar goes through, called "mania". He is on top of the world and everything makes sense to him through a heightened sense of his own subjective reality. 

We get hints that Ronnie has had a terrible upbringing. His mother is a black out drunk, who has no sense of what it means to protect the feelings of her son. His father left early and his mom makes it clear that it was because of Ronnie. It's not likely that Ronnie had any sort of home life that didn't involve imagination and learning how to be a man from television and movies. It's abundantly clear, when hearing his inner monologue that he sees movies and how to live life as being intertwined. Ronnie moves through the film seeing himself as the hero in an action movie and that everyone he encounters are actors in his film, playing their roles. Once the viewer can set aside a preconceived notion of what one believes the film should be doing (being another Superbad) and sees it from the outside as a functioning member of society watching a dysfunctional man fumble his way through the reality that only he knows, it makes it much easier to understand the point of the film, in my opinion. 

Ronnie never sees himself as out of touch or mean. He quickly steers any perceived critique of him as a misdiagnosis from someone who just doesn't "get" him. His mental illness shields him from reality. He can't accept that he is anything less than the movie character he is playing out from minute to minute. He can be forcibly kind and gentle (which in turn makes him NOT kind and gentle), or he can become a raving lunatic that has lost a sense of organized reality. He becomes a pseudo-vigilante, ala Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver". I could pick around at some scenes to flesh this out a little more, but if someone happens to watch this on my recommendation, I don't want to force my ideals about particular scenes into anyone else's head. I will say this though, only a very few people have a feel for Ronnie and what he is about. Those characters, (his mother, the girl at the coffee stand, and even his boss) understand Ronnie isn't a bad human being, he is just off kilter. His reality isn't everyone else's and that's harmless....until he stops taking his medication because he feels so "right". Anyone who has suffered from or knows people who do suffer from depression and/or bipolar can understand that when you feel good and on top of the world, you REALLY feel good. As if nothing you do can go wrong. It's the crash that comes that drives those people into depressive states where they are the total opposite of where they were. Life becomes miserable and pointless, when you fall down that long flight of stairs from the top to the bottom. All that seemed right and worth being a part of before become wrong, void of meaning, and hopeless. 

If you decide to watch it again or for the first time, I simply ask you to watch it as its own vehicle and don't put expectations on it, based on what you have seen Rogen or Faris in before. Ray Liotta and Anna Faris shine. Ronnie looks up to Liotta as a father figure and Liotta, who doesn't have the first understanding that Ronnie is mentally ill, rejects him at every turn, even to the point where his co-workers feel ashamed. Faris' character is the object of Ronnie's infatuation, and she also has no use for his eccentric ways, mostly because she is so self-centered that she can't even see the obvious signs that Ronnie is mentally ill. Michael Pena, as Dennis, Ronnie's right hand man, is also very good, but underutilized. I hope if you  have seen this before and just didn't like it, that maybe you will give it another chance. It's not a film that everyone can like, nor is it easily understood by anyone who hasn't had to deal with bipolar disorder on some level. If nothing else, the movie should convey that there are people out in the world that we interact with daily that are constantly teetering between practical reality and an internal reality, which are starkly different. 

Thanks for reading, if you got this far. 

An interesting interview with directer Jody Hill from avclub.com. 

Here's the original trailer for the film. It is way too oriented towards the one liners and doesn't give much of a feel for what the movie is about. It's marketing that causes anticipation and expectation and the marketing of this film did nothing to help it, as far as I'm concerned.