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Middle Man

 

Paul Westerberg: Stereo

Vagrant, 2002

Rating: 3.6

   

Grandpaboy: Mono

Vagrant, 2002

Rating: 3.8

 

 

Posted: July 17, 2002

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Paul Westerberg has had a split personality -- musically speaking -- at least as far back as the Replacements' twin breakthroughs Let it Be and Tim. So it's not entirely surprising to see him split the two distinct parts of his songwriting identity -- the pensive, wistful balladeer of "Here Comes a Regular" and the sloppy, raucous rocker of Let it Be and Pleased to Meet Me -- like Bruce Banner attempting to extricate himself from the Hulk, or the warring Will Rikers of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

And that, in a nutshell, appears to be just what he's done with the companion albums Stereo and Mono. The latter, credited to Westerberg's alter ego Grandpaboy (who first surfaced on 1997's five-song Grandpaboy EP), represents the songwriter's reckless, mistakes-and-all Id, while the former focuses on the ascetic superego that slowly came to prominence on the Replacements' Don't Tell A Soul and All Shook Down and ruled the roost on his first two solo efforts, 14 Songs and Eventually.

Of course, such easy Freudian interpretation is facile at best, because Westerberg's best work -- whether fronting the Replacements or solo -- has always come as a result of those two personalities meeting in the middle -- Westerberg as the mediating ego, to further the strained analogy. Such is the case with both Stereo and Mono -- the high points showcase Westerberg's (all too dormant) talent for fusing hummable power-pop melodies with a bracing urgency that threatens to spill over into chaos at any moment (as opposed to the countless moments, in the Replacements' legendarily drunken early days, when that threat was all too vividly realized). Mono's bookend tracks -- the agreeable mid-tempo garage rocker "High Time" and the chiming "AAA (Anything, Anyone, Anymore)" are perfect bridges between the two poles, and rank comfortably among the best of his post-Replacements output.

Another reason to avoid the too-obvious polar-opposites analogy is the simple fact that Stereo and Mono inhabit more of the same middle ground than they do the fringes. In fact, the boundaries between the two discs are extremely fluid. Mono purports to be the sloppy, offhand disc, and hurried tracks like "Eyes Like Sparks" and "Let's Not Belong" are indeed bashed out with a certain fire-and-forget cavalier attitude. But "AAA" and the convincing "Kickin' the Stall" betray an attention to detail the album's packaging tries to hide; it's obvious that with these songs, and even looser, shambling numbers like "2 Days 'Til Tomorrow," some care has been taken.

Conversely, the ostensibly more austere Stereo goes out of its way to cultivate a similar ragged glory. As the album notes all too readily explain: "No effort was made to fix what some may deem as mistakes; tape running out, fluffed lyrics, flat notes, extraneous noises, etc." And in fact, two tracks ("Dirt to Mud" and "Don't Want Never") don't so much end as they're abruptly yanked into silence. The circumstances surrounding these instances may be as Westerberg claims (just how long were these tapes?), but they nevertheless feel contrived. Likewise, a loose-meat cover of the traditional "Mr. Rabbit" is too willfully goofy, and the closing tracks "Let the Bad Times Roll" and "Call That Gone?" roll toward unraveling with the same fractured determination as the songs on Mono.

In fact, in many ways Stereo and Mono make more sense as two sides of the same double album (the albums were released both separately and together, and the "together" package featured on initial pressings of Stereo is by far the better investment). Both albums contain their fair share of filler, and both bristle with an agreeably rusty energy strongly reminiscent of Westerberg's hero Alex Chilton. Both, in short, have just as much to recommend them, and choosing between them is very much akin to choosing a favorite between fraternal twins; they're different and yet ultimately the same. At the end of the day, Mono gets the nod, albeit by a hair, both because it's more cohesive (Stereo's odd mix of lighter material and rakish abandon sometimes seems forced) and because, when you get down to it, a Westerberg whose sloppiness gives way to grandeur (as the best, classic Replacements material does) is preferable to one whose maturity takes pains to accommodate a younger, more impetuous self.

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