Common rock cognoscenti opinion maintains pretty steadfastly that the Replacements' third album, 1984's Let it Be, is their best. And there's no question that it's a great album (my favorite 'Mats song of all time, "We're Coming Out," is on Let it Be, after all). Let it Be saw the erratic-but-brilliant Twin Cities upstarts settle down a bit and evolve from insanely talented amateurs into insanely talented songwriters and musicians, giving them an air of professionalism and seriousness almost entirely absent from 1981 debut Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash or 1983's Hootenanny. By Let it Be, they were the real deal, comparatively marketable, and more mature.
Which is probably why Hootenanny is my favorite Replacements record. Who wants mature 'Mats? I'll take the hard-partying, dangerously cavalier version every time. Besides, Hootenanny is a perfect blend of Sorry Ma's barely-contained chaos and Let it Be's more thoughtful songcraft. It sounds ragged and angry, but also wise beyond its years, like a band of misfits and fuckups getting older and better in spite of themselves and not really sure what to do about it. Hootenanny is a shockingly sharp snapshot of a brilliant band going through severe growing pains, and it captures all of the excitement and lightning-in-a-bottle charm of the Replacements on the verge of hitting the midtime.
In a clear sign of the band's disposition circa Hootenanny, the album kicks off with a title track that finds each band member playing the others' instrument, and not doing it very well. The song is in constant danger of collapsing entirely, and it's the album opener. Welcome aboard; the captain's plastered and the first mate's jumped ship. A bold -- or simply careless-- way to start, but it works, setting the tone of the album right away: this is gonna be fun, and catchy, but also pretty shoddy in a thrilling way. And hey man, isn't that rock and fucking roll?
And then comes "Run It," perhaps the best punk the 'Mats ever put to tape. It's a double time scorcher coated in Bob Stinson's amazing, casually molten guitar solos. Plus, the Inspector Gadget breakdown in the middle is boss. "Color Me Impressed" is an endearingly poppy, sneering outsider's anthem hung on a king-sized hook, the sound of the high school drunk crashing the rich kids' party to see what he might be missing and realizing (blessedly) that he's not missing much. "Everybody at your party/ They don't look depressed," spits Westerberg suspiciously, seemingly amazed that anyone could be having a good time or even be happy at such a soiree, in such a town, in such a world. "Everybody's dressin' funny/ Color me impressed."
All of the rockers on this album rule. "Take Me Down to the Hospital"'s jumpy, half-assed boogie is undercut with some pretty dark stuff, as Westerberg's wail betrays the desperation of someone too familiar with late-night emergency rooms and casualty clinic visits. "You Lose" is pissed off and amped up, with a nicely cribbed "Helter Skelter" riff injected into the choruses (the Replacements rip off the Beatles all over this record, incidentally. They even do it twice in one song: "Mr. Whirly" starts with "Strawberry Fields," goes hardcore, then shamelessly reverts back into "Oh Darling"). "Hayday" is the antithesis to "Color Me Impressed": a hectic car crash of a tune about a good party, the trashed kind, the best kind. It's joyous and headstrong and couldn't care any less.
On Hootenanny, Westerberg began to demonstrate his nascent ability to write a heart-rending love song with "Within Your Reach," which offers a glimpse into the future of Westerberg-as-perpetually-wounded-troubador. It's proof that the 'Mats had quivering, perilously sensitive hearts beating behind their self-polluted bravado, a breathtaking display of emotional vulnerability set to a tick-tocking beat box, flanged guitars, and a Cure-informed wall of synth. Gorgeous and devastating.
Even the goofs on this album are pretty damn great. "Buck Hill" is a rad surfy instrumental (which I think is an ode to native DC tenor saxophonist Walter "Buck" Hill, who, despite playing with Charlie Parker and other jazz legends, always kept his day job as a mailman), and "Love Lines" proves that these guys had some serious chops: as Westerberg reads aloud from the personals ("Slightly overweight girl seeks sex"), the Brothers Stinson and Chris Mars lay down an impressive, loose-limbed, jazzy little accompaniment, nailing the phrasing and timing on what sounds like a wholly improvised lark.
Album closer "Treatment Bound" is essentially a chronicle of where the 'Mats saw themselves at the time: smarter than everyone else (but no one else knew it), reckless, and royally fucked up. Over an acoustic folk-punk shanty, Westerberg bellows lines like, "First thing we do when we finally pull up/ Get shit-faced drunk, try to sober up," and he doesn't make it sound like that much fun. At all. There's a lot of bitterness, too: "We're getting no place as fast as we can/ We get a nose-full from our so-called friends." The way Westerberg slurs, "We go from town to town/ Duluth to Madison," traces the stifling boundaries of the ultimately small world (the upper Midwest) of these bleary-eyed savants, and makes him sound resigned to a pretty bleak, cold life. It's quiet desperation hiding behind drunken bluster and teary aggression, and it makes me catch my breath every time it comes on.
Hootenanny is, for my money, the most pitch-perfect testament to the Replacements in all of their stumbling, thrashing, lovelorn glory. It's a portrait of sad, lonely kids who want to believe that rock can save them, but are having doubts all along the way. It's intoxicated and intoxicating. It's my favorite.