BY MIKE WALSH Early last year, Slim Dunlap, the Replacements second lead guitar player and a mainstay of the Minneapolis music scene for many years, suffered a massive stroke. It left him paralyzed and in need of constant medical attention, which his health insurance does not cover. So Peter Jesperson, who managed and promoted the Replacements (aka the Mats) in the early 80s, has organized a series of recordings of Slim’s songs by musicians like Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Craig Finn of The Hold Steady, John Doe, the Jayhawks, and others. These are being released as split 7” singles, with all profits going to Slim’s medical bills. So it was under these circumstances that two of the remaining Replacements, Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson, entered a recording studio last September with drummer Peter Anderson and guitarist Kevin Bowe, both Minneapolis musicians, and recorded a cover of Slim’s “Busted Up” and three other covers. Chris Mars, the Mats original drummer, declined to participate in the session. Instead, he recorded a cover of another of Dunlap’s songs. So the four Westerberg and Stinson covers and Mars’ recording were packaged in an EP called Songs for Slim and labeled as being by the Replacements. That’s as close to a reunion as we’re going to get with the Mats. (All recordings in the series also feature cover artwork by Mars, who has become a successful painter.)
If the Replacements with Bob Stinson were version 1.0 (f’in great) and the Replacements with Slim Dunlap were v2.0 (pretty damn good), then the Replacements on Songs for Slim without either guitar player or Mars are v0.5 (just ok). As far as I’m concerned, Paul and Tommy do not add up to the Replacements. 250 autographed, numbered copies of Songs for Slim were pressed on 10” vinyl and packaged with photos and prints and auctioned on Ebay, bringing in an incredible $100,000 for Dunlap. Download versions of the EP are now available, and 12” vinyl versions will be available to the public on April 6. Songs for Slim opens with “Busted Up,” a pleasant enough mid-tempo rumble with a dash of honky tonk. Westerberg added a Dr. John-style piano, which, to my ears, doesn’t improve on the original. Mar’s version of Dunlap’s “Radio Hook Word Hit” is the most successful piece on the EP. With a driving rhythm and cool guitar parts, this slice of power pop works. That song actually could be a radio hit. But the real fun starts with “I’m Not Sayin’,” a cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s ridiculous “love” song from the mid-60s. This song has a catchy melody, a hook, and the kind of bittersweet mood that Westerberg strove for in his ballads. It’s also got outlandish lyrics. The song is about a guy telling his girlfriend that he’ll try to commit and be faithful, but that’s he’s not promising anything.
“I’m not saying I’ll be true … But I won’t deny or mistreat you, if you let me have my way.” That touching bit of sentiment is one of those inadvertently offensive tunes from the 60s, like “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss).” Westerberg plays it straight, but while the band rocks, you can hear him chuckle through a couple of the more absurd lyrics. “Lost Highway” is the most rocking song on the EP and reminds me of the reckless approach of the band’s early years. (Jason and the Scorcher’s mid-80s version also comes to mind.) You can read this country standard about regret and life on the road as a comment by Paul and Tommy about the notorious substance abuse and misbehavior of the band’s early years on tour. The closer, Sondheim’s “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” is another humorous, sardonic comment, especially when you consider the fates of Bob Stinson and Dunlap, the way the Replacements disintegrated, and that the remaining Replacements won’t even discuss the band with the media. Roses and daffodils? Sunshine and lollipops? Not quite. But it’s an inspired selection and is performed with verve and humor, and the last verse and chorus really get it. Even Westerberg’s strained, off-key vocals fit right in. This is the kind of song I can imagine the Replacements 1.0 destroying in 60 seconds or less. But they’re adults now, so they play the entire song, and it makes you like them again. I wouldn’t call Songs for Slim essential, but it is playful and energized, the rhythm section cooks, and Westerberg’s voice is in good form. It captures some of attitude that made their early recordings so wonderful. Buy it for Slim.