- The Washington Times - Monday, October 20, 2003

Paul Westerberg

Come Feel Me Tremble

Vagrant Records

Ever since releasing 1999’s “Suicaine Gratification,” his most concerted attempt at making a professional, polished, radio-friendly pop album, Paul Westerberg has chosen to do it his way. “Suicaine,” produced by Don Was, was superb, but following its release, his label dumped him — a case of bureaucratic reshuffling, but personally stinging all the same.

Now, Mr. Westerberg, the songwriting muscle behind one of the best rock bands of the ‘80s, the Replacements, is a humble one-man indie-rock operation, recording simple, unembellished songs in the basement of his Minneapolis home and playing all the instruments.

The new “Come Feel Me Tremble,” a bundle of chaff left over from last year’s “Stereo/Mono” project, is a beautiful, boozy shambles. (For Westerberg cultists, the DVD of the same name, also out today, is worth the price just for the footage of the singer-songwriter’s unceremonious sausage-making.) At times there are no discernible bass lines on “Tremble,” and on “Soldier of Misfortune” and “Pine Box,” a pair of brusque and loud rockers, Mr. Westerberg’s husky voice is buried deep in a hasty mix. And let’s face it: Drumming is not the guy’s forte.

Still, this is good, enjoyable chaff.

“My Daydream” nicks the Beatles’ “Please Please Me” and sets it to gritty power pop. “Making Me Go,” “Wild & Lethal” and “Hillbilly Junk” are products of Mr. Westerberg’s Stonesy instincts, long his fallback position as a songwriter.

Where “Tremble” excels is on Mr. Westerberg’s quieter, midtempo reflections — the breezy “What a Day (for a Night),” a cover of Jackson Browne’s “These Days” and the stunning “Meet Me Down the Alley.”

Mr. Westerberg has always been known for a kinky, unaffected sense of poetry, and on the one-two punch of “Crackle & Drag” — there are two takes, one harsh and electric, the other acoustic and subdued — he cops to a liking of the poet-suicide Sylvia Plath, played by Gwyneth Paltrow in a Hollywood biopic, “Sylvia,” opening Friday .

The chorus refers to the baffling tag line in Miss Plath’s poem “Edge”: “She is used to this sort of thing / Her blacks crackle and drag.”

I’m ill-equipped to interpret the line, but as sung by Mr. Westerberg, it becomes a melancholic incantation. He adds his own rather poetic filler to the Plath extract, describing in morbid detail her head-in-the-oven demise.

“And as her babies slept / she took a long deep breath / Now they’re zippin’ her up in a bag / The Cadillac’s waitin’ to take her away / Can you hear her blacks crackle and drag?”

Mr. Westerberg has more than once sung about his affinity for pills (the Replacements’ “Valentine,” the solo “Psychopharmacology”) and on “Knockin’ em Back,” he gives the little buggers another go-round. The song, hopefully tongue-in-cheek, begins as a bouncy country shuffle before fracturing into blaring punk.

To some, the lo-fi chaos of “Tremble”might be off-putting, but Mr. Westerberg is merely obeying his gut. Every time he has gone glossy, as with late-period Replacement albums such as “Don’t Tell a Soul,” he has come up empty — at least commercially.

If no one besides his core fan base is going to buy his product, why go to the expense of a band and a top-shelf producer? Why not just go guerrilla?

“Tremble,” while neither earth-shattering nor one of Mr. Westerberg’s best, affirms those instincts. We can only hope he keeps busy in his basement, blissfully ignorant of record sales.


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