The Replacements last album or Paul Westerberg's first solo album depending on who you ask, All Shook Down finds The Replacements going out on a high if not quite riotous note after a career of drinking too much, fighting too much, reaching for the stars, and falling flat on their faces. Making this album simply to fulfill their record contract and featuring a host of guest performers who wanted the "honor" of playing on a 'Mats album, the actual band only play all together on one cut here and spend the rest of the album popping up here and there, but never as the full group of Paul Westerberg, Tommy Stinson, Chris Mars, and Slim Dunlop. In fact band and guest musicians (the likes of which include noteables such as John Cale, Benmont Tench, and Steve Berlin) one and all are credited simply as "Contributers", and nothing further. So in this reviewers opinion if you are looking for a 'Mats album here, get ready to make an adjustment. And say hello to Mr. Paul Westerberg, songwriter. You might just like who you meet and what you hear.
The album gets off to a bouncy start with the single "Merry Go Round", and the track finds Westerberg covering one of his favorite topics (being misunderstood) and pinning the troubles on and dishing out the sympathy to the young woman who is his subject. Things continue along this same line for the next two tunes with Westerberg waxing poetic about a gal on an airplane in the slight, very un-Replacements like track "One Wink At A Time" and solid mid tempo rocker "Nobody". One of the stand out songs on the album, this third tune on the record finds Westerberg in his grown up clothes warning an ex lover after her wedding day that "you like the frosting / You just bought the cake" and that she is "still in love with nobody / And I used to be nobody". This song puts Paul's full songwritnig skills on display and his word play is indeed catchy from beginning to end, painting a vivid picture of a loser in love trying to convince the one who once loved him she's made a mistake and he wishes it were him. Same themes as we have heard from Westerberg before, but with the stakes just a little higher in the real world of love and marraige and permanent loss. The lovable loser gets a life.
The band shows up in total for the first and last time on the album for the next track up, the very Replacements like rocker "Bent Out Of Shape", which finds Paul once again lamenting the loss of a lover he didn't want but needed
, as he tells her "you kept me straight", and with her he "never felt better". The band rocks hard here and Paul delivers his lyrics of a downtrodden lover with just the right amount of edgy angst and self pitying anger (the same thing, most likely) to get the job done in classic 'Mats fashion. Albiet the more mature version of the band. And if you can't imagine that, this song will do it for you.
Quieting things substantially for the tender and affecting ballad "Sadly Beautiful" and uneven, mid tempo, nowhere is home tale "Someone Take The Wheel", the album settles back down into the easy going song craft of the songwriter, and by the time the second half of the album kicks off with the light hearted and whimsical "When It Began" it's clear that this really isn't a Replacements album at all, but Paul Westerberg wrapping up the band with a set of tunes that are his and his alone. Which is nothing new for him being the songwriter in the group, but you can tell these songs weren't written for the Replacements. Which isn't a bad thing, as these are for the most part very solid tracks. But they are Replacement tunes only in name. So if that is what you are looking for, you may want to look or start elsewhere with this band.
After the musically vague throwaway title track and lightweight solo acoustic pop of "Attitude", things get rocking (kind of) once again with the failed dreams and surviving tune "Happy Town", where Westerberg warns "The plan was to set the world on fire / But it rains everyday on the liar", and the song finishes in a semi shambiling mess. For old times sake, I suppose. Next up we find one of the better and shorter songs on the album in the acoustic guitar dominated breezy pop of "Torture". Never a stranger to a great pop hook even in his garage/pop/punk days, the simple melody and flowing word play gets the listener from the very start here. Again waxing romantic and with lyrics like "A million baby kisses / From a kissing booth on wheels / This sign is pretty poison / On the envelope she seals / And your love is by the way / Who knows exactly how she feels" it's hard to say what the singer is going on about" But he let's us know in the choruses whatever it is "without her / It's torture". And we really don't care what he means by songs end. It's just one minute and fifty one seconds of catchy, hummable music. Same as with the old band. And so as the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The album wraps up with the forced and unremarkable rocker "My Little Problem", featuring Concrete Blonde singer Johnette Napolitano on raving guest vocals. This song manages the unfortunate feat of sounding neither like a Replacements or Westerberg track as it scurries around without ever taking off, and simply falls off the end of the record. The closing tune, "The Last", finds Westerberg alone at the piano accompanied by gentle bass, guitar, and brush drums and once again taking on the romances of a female loser in love as he asks "Would it hurt to fall in love a little slower / I know it hurts at any speed" and advises of a recent relationship "Make this one your last / 'Cause this one child is killing you". And with that The Replacements do indeed take their last breath as an idea, a band, and a vehicle for Paul Westerberg's ever evolving tales of lovable and unloveable messed up, broken, sometimes drunken, but oft times spirited losers.
All Shook Down is a very good album. Full of well crafted and well performed songs, featuring a host of top notch guest musicians, and produced by REM collaborator Scott Litt, it's got a little something of everything. From pop to rock to ballads to a rave up or two. However you choose to view the album is besides the point. Call it The Replacements last or Paul Westerberg's first, nothing changes the fact that it makes a pretty good (if somewhat different) finish for one of rocks great rock n roll bands or a fine start for one of rocks better songwriters beginning to branch out on his own. Accepted on it's own terms All Shook Down will shake you up just enough to get your butt shaking, heart racing, and toes tapping throughout. And that's just about as much as you can ask of any record. No matter who it's by or what you call it.