September 17, 2004

DISC DISCUSSION

Paul Westerberg -- Folker.jpg

Paul Westerberg -- Folker

Paul Westerberg, who since 2002 has been on a very prolific run, recently released yet another solo album, Folker (Vagrant Records). How does it stack up against the former Replacements leader's past efforts? Staffers Chris M. Junior and George Henn talk it over.

Chris M. Junior: It's worth noting right off the bat that unlike Westerberg's other CDs since his 2002 comeback, Folker features photos of him that are crisp and clear. But there's a lot of truth in the old saying that you can't judge a book -- or in this case, a CD -- by its cover. With the exception of 2003's Dead Man Shake, released under the Grandpa Boy moniker, Westerberg's recent albums with blurry front covers -- Stereo, Mono (as Grandpa Boy) and Come Feel Me Tremble -- ranged from good to great. Folker is subpar, at best.

George Henn: I have found that Westerberg's work, both solo and with The Replacements, has sometimes taken a while to grow on me, but on my first couple of listens I'd have to agree about it being subpar. He had said in an interview a few months back that he felt Folker was maybe the best thing he's ever done. It sure doesn't sound like it. I'm afraid Westerberg has spent so much time recording alone in his basement these past few years that he's lost perspective. It would seem it's time for him to work with a producer or at least collaborate with some other musicians again.

Junior: Folker is not the best thing he's ever done. It's not even close to being his best solo effort, either -- that honor goes to 2002's Stereo, with 14 Songs and Mono tied for second. I think you've nailed it -- Westerberg has reached a point where he needs to employ a producer and some other players again. Doing everything by himself worked for a few albums, but not with last year's awful Dead Man Shake or this album. Stevie Wonder, Brian Wilson and Todd Rundgren are very good at playing multiple instruments and can knock off good stuff alone, but they don't always follow that course. The biggest problem with Folker isn't the songs -- it's the performance. I can't imagine Westerberg having such a big ego that he doesn't want to work with others. It probably has more to do with laziness or a loss of perspective.

Henn: Come to think of it, the best solo stuff he has done might be the first two songs he released after the Replacements broke up: "Dyslexic Heart" and "Waiting For Somebody," from the Singles soundtrack. When you think about those two songs -- both ultra catchy, featuring some clever writing and slick, radio-friendly production -- it's hard to believe he is at a point now where he is content releasing albums that sound like glorified demos. Westerberg obviously has grown quite comfortable making records at home, by himself, on an indie label that is thrilled to have him, after his well documented frustration recording for Warner Brothers and Capitol in the '90s. By the sound of Folker, however, he has gotten a little too comfortable. I agree that the major problem here is this album doesn't quite sound like a finished, cohesive product, but the songs themselves are not up to the standard.

Junior: To me, there's no point comparing his Replacements material to his solo material. They're really two different eras. And besides, the other guys in the band helped bring Westerberg's tunes to life -- especially bassist Tommy Stinson -- and don't get as much credit as they deserve.

Should fans be laughing with Westerberg as he sings the jokey "Jingle," which opens the new album, or at him? It's really a throwaway, better suited as a B-side to a single or as a hidden track on the album. But no -- here it is, opening the disc. This pretty much summarizes his current complacency and the watering down of songwriting standards.

Henn: I guess that opening track shouldn't come as a total shock since his spate of albums since 2002 have contained throwaway-type tunes. It's one thing to include material like that on his Grandpa Boy albums -- where more irreverence and indulgence is to be expected -- or even on Come Feel Me Tremble, the cobbled-together soundtrack-album companion to his tour documentary of the same name. As for my comment about his Replacements material, it's true that it's tough, and perhaps fruitless, to compare those years to this stage of his career. But when he first emerged from his basement hibernation in 2002 with the Stereo/Mono double album, his writing still had some of that familiar bite to it: "Silent Film Star," for one, was a classic put-down song in the vein of the old 'Mats favorite "Waitress in the Sky." Tracks like "Gun Shy" and "$100 Groom" do have some of that spark and swagger, but mostly Folker seems to lack purpose and passion. On "Jingle," Westerberg implores us to "buy it," but I'm not sure he's even sold on what he's doing anymore.

Junior: "Now I Wonder" and "As Far As I Know" are the best songs of the bunch and wouldn't seem out of place on any of his prior solo discs. But with the arrangements and instrumentation so similar throughout Folker, the songs tend to blend together. If some thought and effort was put into presenting them in a different fashion, maybe the songs would sparkle and be flat-out, top-shelf material. And would it kill Westerberg to plug in an electric guitar and play something uptempo? The closest he gets is "Gun Shy," but the clumsy, tentative drumming works against it.

Henn: True, the drum sounds are enough to make me wonder if Westerberg's 6-year-old son is really the one keeping the beat on some of these cuts. There was a certain charm to the ragged, homespun feel of Stereo/Mono, but that seems to have worn off now that he seems intent on making every one of his albums a one-man hodgepodge. It's certainly not his first uneven record, but there was a time when his songs and ideas at least seemed fully realized. If it turns out that I'm unable to get a couple of tunes from Folker out of my head in another month or two, then the old devil will have done it again. But for now, to steal one of Westerberg's lines from his heyday, this is his first release in a long while with no tracks that make me want to proclaim, "I'm in love with that song."

Posted by medleyville at September 17, 2004 03:57 PM
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