The "official" record--Stereo, credited to Paul Westerberg, remember him?--is sloppy in an "artful" way, meaning songs abruptly end when the tape runs out while others collapse when the guy singing them peters out; they're demos, or sound like them, assembled from two years' worth of basement tapes, literally. The "unofficial" record--Mono, credited to Grandpa Boy and stuffed into a side sleeve--is sloppy in an "artless" way, meaning it was "recorded poorly" and "played in a hurry with sweaty hands and unsure reason," or so read the trustworthy liner notes. Split releases from a split personality--in other words, imagine if the Replacements back when had sequestered the "rock" from the "roll," the drunken free-for-alls from the drunken laments, and that sort of sums it up. (Stereo's not ashamed of getting loud; Mono's not afraid of feeling vulnerable.) So does Westerberg in the press notes, better than any rock critic waiting to step all over the door 'Mat for playing the same old new thing after striking out with that last disc of avant-cocktail crock and droll: "Don't say it's anything fresh or new. It's not...You can hear the very first record I ever played, and you can hear this one, and you'll hear a lot of similarities. I am what I am, goddamnit."He has nothing to apologize for and less to explain: Once the die-hard gets past comparing it to, oh, Let it Be or Pleased to Meet Me, this amiable double-discer, some cut with a bassist and backup singer whose name is either Zeke Pine or Tommy Stinson, withstands the echoes of a band better known than sold. For the first time since going solo, Westerberg sounds comfortable in his own pale skin; no more dicking around or ducking behind the piano while his guitar taunts him from the corner. He's all plug-and-play now--out to make some noise, have fun, be funny, fuck up, fuck around and kick out the corks he jammed into his ass around the time Suicaine Gratifaction was released straight into the discount bins three long years ago. It's indicative of everything that he end the Stereo disc--the "serious" record, with its love songs and self-hate songs--with a hidden cover of Flesh for Lulu's "Postcards From Paradise" cut fast and loose, Shit Hits the Fans-style. The guitar's been drinking, not him.
The old-timers (say, those of us in our early 30s) will get a kick out of Mono; its greatest reward is that grin of warm familiarity it pastes across your face, the one you get when you see an old friend after years of wishing he were still around. It's all broken-off eighth notes and spit-out-shit-out lyrics, as nasty as it is compassionate as it is, most of all, loud. "I'll do anything," Westerberg shouts over a most familiar chugalug guitar that gives way to one song that sounds like "On the Bus" ("Let's Not Belong"), another that sounds like a cover of a KISS cover ("Knock it Right Out") and an album's worth of best-ofs you've never heard (they just sound like it). After years of wondering if he was worth all the fuss--if those shadow-of-his-former-self solo albums and soundtrack tracks didn't damage the legacy, they certainly diminished it in retrospect--it's nice to find out you were right all along.
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Stereo, a skeleton of an album most of the time, is probably the more substantial disc; it's got better songs (cf. "Only Lie Worth Telling," "Call That Gone?" and "Don't Want Never"), even if they're occasionally just barely there (and sound like "Ruby Tuesday" some of the time). And it contains one of Westerberg's best since he gave up cleaning up his own vomit for cleaning up after his young son: the acoustic plaint "We May Be the Ones," which actually plays like the flip side to "Bastards of Young." He's 13 again, getting drunk after church and using the garage as a playground; only now, the sons of no one waiting to be forgotten are wondering what their true purpose really is. They're tired of being told they're useless and anxious to make a difference: "We may well be the ones/To set this world on its ear," he sings, his beautifully ragged voice never sounding worse, meaning better. "We may well be the ones/If not, then why are we here?/Why the hell then are we here?" It's an easy answer: to make records like Stereo and Mono, which, at long last, live up to a legacy he's always tried to play down.