Color Me Impressed: The Replacements’ Hootenanny at 40
It might not be their best offering, but it’s definitely their most Mats-like
Depending how you look at it, Hootenanny, which was released 40 years ago today, is the last gasp of The Replacements 1.0 or the first breaths taken by the more “evolved” 2.0 version of the band.
It would prove to be the last time the ‘Mats would be able to release something without being poked and prodded about “what it all means,” the last time they’d be free from questions about career opportunities, the ones that were about to knock – in incredibly loud fashion.
For the first couple of years of their existence, and initial releases like Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash and Stink, two things were clear: 1) Paul Westerberg was an incredible rock ‘n’ roll songwriter. 2) Paul Westerberg didn’t give a fuck about whether or not you knew that.
They abided by – to borrow the original name of their hometown labelmates Soul Asylum – the Loud Fast Rules. They sped along, seldom, if ever, tapping the brakes, creating such timeless odes as the prescient Johnny Thunders obit “Johnny’s Gonna Die” and the self-referential “More Cigarettes” (the first of Westerberg’s many references to his omnipresent smokes).
If you were listening from another room, you might have trouble differentiating them from fellow Midwesterners like Die Kreuzen, but a closer creep would reveal more going on under the surface, thanks to Westerberg’s guttersnipe humor and closing-time philosophizing.
The quartet made the most of that yin-yang relationship, particularly when they took the stage to deliver some of the most perfect tension-and release performances the rock and roll world had ever experienced. You say your favorite song was “Takin’ a Ride”? Chances are you’d hear it. Okay, maybe you’d hear 30 seconds of it before a complete collapse. Then again, you might hear it three or four times in the same set. Heck, I caught a set with at least three different versions of Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades” back in this era, all of them different, all of them addictive in their own way.
For those first two years of their existence, they proved that, rather than playing by the book, they were looking to write their own book – and do it completely off the cuff, like automatic writing filtered through the collected works of Jim Beam and Jim Thompson. So, in keeping with that, they went off script for what would become their third album, abandoning their trusty eight-track studio for a 24-track portable set up in a warehouse out in the suburbs of Minnesota for a long decampment – long enough to alternately fray and strengthen the bonds between the four, and long enough to create what still stands as their strangest, most provocative album, Hootenanny.
Hootenanny’s album-opening title track serves as a perfect calling card for what’s to come, particularly given the fact that the members switched instruments for the duration. Driven by Bob Stinson’s walking – or, more accurately, stumbling – bass line, the tune is a snapshot of an early afternoon bender at a windowless dive bar. It captures the feel of having a fifty-something barmaid, one who’s wizened and surly, but still caring, slide a fishbowl of Hamm’s your way. A fair amount of it sloshes onto the well-worn bar, and you ponder the practicality of trying to coax the spillover back into the glass. Chances are, you opt to do so – all the better to join in on the “hootenanny” Paul Westerberg’s yowls promise is on the horizon.
That song keeps one, if not both, feet in the gutter. But Hootenanny offers some signals that Westerberg is ready to come out as a serious songwriter with a desire to connect with something other than the pleasure center, ready to spend time in places that weren’t dark, dank and smoke-filled. Much like Bukowski did in The Most Beautiful Woman in Town, he poured his heart into tales of glamourless distress like “Color Me Impressed.” The yearning is palpable, the world-weariness impossible to fend off. Yes, he’s slathered a thick layer of snottiness onto the anti-hipster screed, but the middle fingers belie a stiletto-sharp wit, what with the double entendre of the key line “can you stand me on my feet?” Does he want a friend to pick him up off the floor, or is he asking if anyone will love him once the booze wears off and he’s capable of remaining vertical?
The moments of reflection were guided by Westerberg’s desire to broaden his horizons, and his willingness to pay more attention to drummer Chris Mars, the member with the biggest fondness for pop in its purest form. To some degree, the changes were brought about by mother nature – or at least the patron saint of the touring van. As Westerberg said in Trouble Boys: The True Story of The Replacements, “It had been a year or six months of touring and doing the Stink thing, and the last thing I wanted to do was really bash out another one like that. … It was impossible to sing that shit anyway; it was ripping my throat raw.”
To be fair, there are moments of throat-shredding in the 31 tight minutes that make up Hootenanny. “Take Me Down to the Hospital,” which careens wildly through its four minutes, actually addresses the topic of his poor laryngeal health pretty directly: The song was inspired by a post-show incident in which Westerberg’s respiratory system basically shut down. Doctors blamed an unexpectedly strong dose of amphetamine, but also advised the singer to tone down some of those vocal excesses as well.
A sort of bookend tune, “Run It,” is supposedly a you-are-there recreation of an incident where Mars turned troublemaker for a change and – with his singer hanging on for dear life – tried to outrun Minneapolis cops on his motorcycle. He got away, and the band came away with one of it more memorable mile-a-minute moments.
But even when the band leave the pedal completely off the metal, they manage to hold attention here. Some of that is sleight-of-hand: “Lovelines,” which could pass for airport-lounge jazz at first blush, beckons with mumbled, jumbled vocals. On closer inspection, those turn out to be snippets pulled directly from personals of one of the local Twin Cities alternative weeklies. It’s hard to tell if Westerberg is playing it for laughs or sympathizing, but judging by the tone of the songs he actually wrote the lyrics for, it’s safe to venture he was at least leaning towards the latter.
Take the honky-tonk closer “Treatment Bound,” which lopes along in a haze of substances and exhaustion, telling a road tale that’s akin to a bizarro-world version of “Truckin.” But instead of embarking on a jocular jaunt, the ‘Mats pull a bleary all-nighter rife with a working-class defeatism that’s almost celebratory. “we’re gettin’ nowhere quick as we know how.”
Thing is, this was the first time it was clear that the band was actually gettin’ somewhere, although there was definitely friction. Most of that, it seems, emanated from guitarist Bob Stinson, one of the most enigmatic players of his era. Bob could toss off lightning=speed leads, play crushing riffs and generate amazingly catchy melodies – or he could bring a song crashing down like a house of cards. He made his mark on Hootenanny, even though, as producer Paul Stark told Trouble Boys author Bob Mehr, “The major consideration was how drunk Bob was going to be when he came to the sessions and how much you could get out of him before he got too drunk to work. With Bob, we only had about 20 or 30 minutes to record every night.”
They made the most of it. Bob’s feral playing supercharges “You Lose,” and teases with extra slink on the instrumental “Buck Hill.” He’s omnipresent on the heavier songs and knew enough to pull back when the song called for it, notably on “Willpower” and “Lovelines,” and only really stomps all over the melody once – on the album’s sole throwaway, “Hayday.”
AUDIO: The Replacements “Within Your Reach”
What’s most telling is his complete absence on Hootenanny’s most uncharacteristic song, the aching “Within Your Reach.” None of the other members are present on the track, which still ranks among Westerberg’s most poignant, with the pleading hook “I can’t live without your touch/I’ll die within your reach” resonating long after the last notes ring out. The frontman told Mehr that Bob outright refused to play on the song and didn’t even want it included, saying “I don’t know if there was a moment when he thought ‘this is no longer my band. Because when we played the loud fast shit, it was his band. But I felt like I can only do so much of that.”
While they didn’t stop doing the “loud, fast shit,” especially in concert, it soon became clear that the Replacements were no longer Bob’s band. The founder would be gone from the ranks in a couple of years, and the pressure would be ratcheted up by forces that expected something big – really big – from the band. They fought against that as best they could, even sabotaging their supposed “big break” on Saturday Night Live with the most shambolic musical performance that show had ever seen. But, free from that pressure, the Replacements created Hootenanny.
It might not be their best offering, but it’s definitely their most Replacements-like.
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4 thoughts on “Color Me Impressed: The Replacements’ Hootenanny at 40”
What a long-winded bunch of nonsense. Did this writer take a correspondence course they found on a matchbook?
Ooh sick burn. NOT.
This is such a thoughtful take on a really great record. Beautifully put — might not be the band’s best but it is the essence of the band. Powerful insights about how the band stopped being “Bob’s band” as songcraft like Within Your Reach sort of came from nowhere and emerged perfectly formed. And I’d be reluctant to call even Hayday a throwaway — it’s a trifle, but too catchy a chorus to dismiss entirely.
the real fantastic four