Coming 19 months after their last album, the now near classic “Pleased To Meet Me", and a good five years after the “Let It Be" album would see the band go from a small Minneapolis punk band to a small Minneapolis punk band with national acclaim and attention as “the next big thing", this album, The Replacements seventh release and last album as a group for all intents and purposes, is a mixed bag of the good, bad, and sometimes very ugly. Produced and engineered by Matt Wallace, who has worked with everyone from Redd Cross to Sheryl Crow to Maroon 5 and Faith No More, he gives The Replacements a loud, polished, and somewhat soft and vague sound that doesn’t suit this band well at all. But that’s just one of a few problems with this compromised album that see’s the ‘Mat’s reaching for sales and the MTV crowd after years of always coming but never quite arriving. Trying to crack the stale hair / pop metal / power balled nut rock radio and MTV had become, and also trying to find a place to fit among their alt rock contemporaries, On “Don’t Tell A Soul", the band that was always so good at making songs about outsiders who are hopelessly out of place in life sound hopelessly out of place themselves. And a sometimes dire sound it is.
The album opens with the bouncy pop rock of “Talent Show" and it’s clear from the start something is different, and not in a good way. A song that rocks steady but never quite busts out, and features a sugary sweet acoustic guitar opening that would make Def Leppard proud, Talent Show is the sound of The Replacements held back and spinning their wheels. Saved by the fact that it’s a good song, it nonetheless goes forward without going anywhere until it stumbles to an end. Hoping this is just a warm up and things are bound to get better, the next track, “Back To Back," is not even that good. Without doubt one of Paul Westerberg’s thinnest and weakest songs to ever find it’s way to record that finds the singer actually trying to sing
, and finds the band sounding like four hired musicians from Power Ballads ‘R Us. Things don’t improve any with the silly and soft bombast of “We’ll Inherit The Earth" that like Talent Show before it threatens to bite but never does, and the temptation is to throw the disc into the microwave and set it on high. For an hour. At least.
Surprisingly, though, all is not lost. Obviously given over to the record company and rock radio powers that be of the day and fans being stuck with it, there is still some gold to be mined in this pit of poo that finds our once beloved ‘Mat’s kissing mainstream arse. The ace in the hole for the Replacements of course are the songwriting talents of singer / guitarist Paul Westerberg, and when the band stops trying to rock on this album (imagine that if you can) is when that talent and the songs that come with it find their way through all the slick sugar of the production and to the listener undiminished. Like tossing a life raft to a drowning man after all the mediocrity that came before “Achin’ To Be", one of Westerberg’s best songs to date , comes along to allow us to hang on a little longer. With the band still sounding glossy, the stripped down instrumentation and easy going feel of this coming of age story nonetheless comes through and actually finds the candy coated production working in it’s favor, adding a somewhat meaty, wall of sound grander to the ballad. The next cut “They’re Blind", which once again finds Westurberg on familiar ground with a story of unrequited love, is similarly successful with it’s golden oldies style and breezy backing harmonies. “Only want a date with her / Only one more day with her" he wails while the band accompany him like some second rate lounge act. And for just the second time on this record this band manages to sound like, well, The Replacements.
Unfortunately all this goodness comes to a screeching halt with the kick off of the second half of this frustrating album. The ponderous, over the top, horrible faux rock of “Anywhere Is Better Then Here" comes plundering out of the speakers next, and back to the crap we go. This loud, noisy, over produced piece of non rock should of just stayed off the record, period. Sounding more generic Van Hagar knock off then anything approaching respectable, all we are missing is dumbass Sammy on vocals to round things out. Miserable, loud, and useless, this track is DOA with no help in sight. Thankfully things calm down again for the pop hook laden “Asking Me Lies" and the equally engaging mid tempo single “I’ll Be You". Still sounding out of their element and with a big, polished sound that would leave even the most diehard ‘Mat’s fan guessing who this band might be, it hardly seems to matter on these two tracks as once again the strong songwriting of Paul Westerberg is able to wade through the muck and mire of the production, and make the most of it all the while.
After another shot at kicking out the jams that should of simply been cut from the record all together (the dismal rocker “I Won’t) the album finishes strong with the reflective and moving ballad “Rock n Roll Ghost" that finds the band backing a longing for times gone past and aging Westerberg on a soft tale of regret, and the bombastic, surreal, psychedelia tinged “Darlin’ One". One of the more successful tracks on the record, Darlin’ One sounds no different then what has come before, but as said at the beginning of the review, the sound of this record is just one of it’s troubles. Another is the surprisingly weak songwriting and calculated performances that raise their ugly heads on some tracks. So what we are left with basically is half an album that succeeds on the strength of good lean songwriting and half an album that is disposable, bloated, and fat. As said before, a frustrating album if there ever was one. Not just for what it’s not, but also for what it could have been.
Not a terrible album by any standard and a half-hearted failure by others, what The Replacements did on Don’t Tell A Soul was raise the stakes in the rock n roll game only to come up short by a mile, as what they were shooting for was not above them, but beneath. A basic, stripped down, garage band at heart, this album finds The Replacements out of the garage and lost in the game of big time rock n roll, intoxicated by the idea that maybe, just maybe if they play the game a little bit, good fortune and a bit of mainstream success will follow. After all, they stood among the best rock n roll bands in the country, right?
No doubt about that. And for bands as glorious and original as The Replacements, that need be enough.