The Replacements were touted as the Next Big Thing for so long that when leader Paul Westerberg struck out for a solo career in 1992, that same sense of expectation carried over to the new phase of his career. Of course, 1992 was a very different time from 1984, when the 'Mats released their breakthrough Let It Be, or even 1989, when the heavily scrubbed and polished Don't Tell a Soul represented a last-ditch attempt for crossover success for the band. In 1992, the doors to commercial mass acceptance for alternative rock ...
The Replacements were touted as the Next Big Thing for so long that when leader Paul Westerberg struck out for a solo career in 1992, that same sense of expectation carried over to the new phase of his career. Of course, 1992 was a very different time from 1984, when the 'Mats released their breakthrough Let It Be, or even 1989, when the heavily scrubbed and polished Don't Tell a Soul represented a last-ditch attempt for crossover success for the band. In 1992, the doors to commercial mass acceptance for alternative rock had finally been broken down -- the very thing that many critics and pundits predicted that the Replacements would do. Nirvana opened the floodgates with Nevermind, and the climate of rock music changed considerably, just around the time that Westerberg was turning away from the rowdy rock & roll that had made his reputation and turning toward classic singer/songwriter-styled material. In the thick of the post-Nirvana fallout, Westerberg released the light, incessantly catchy "Dyslexic Heart" as his first single -- a song that he calls "a bit too cutesy for me" in the liner notes to the 2005 retrospective Besterberg, but the damage had already been done, since the single, and its association with Cameron Crowe's Seattle-glorifying slacker romantic comedy Singles, pegged Westerberg as being a little bit too desperate for crossover success. He may have helped kick off the cultural zeitgeist of the '90s, but now that the tide had turned, he was left behind. His 1993 full-length debut, 14 Songs -- a collection of polite Stonesy rockers and sensitive balladeering that wasn't all that bad but certainly wasn't hip -- didn't help matters, even if it got a fair amount of MTV airplay and charitable reviews, and by his second album, Eventually, in 1996, Westerberg began a long, slow slide to the margins of pop culture. He still retained a cult, but it got smaller with each release, no matter if some were stronger (Stereo) than others (Suicaine Gratifaction). It was such a drop-off in quality, such a diminishment of his stature -- once poised to be the savior of rock, he was simply stumbling along like his idol, Alex Chilton -- that it's hard for a compilation not to reflect this shift. To its credit, Besterberg goes out of its way to disguise this decline, with nearly half of the 20-song disc dating prior to Eventually, which is also represented by two outtakes that are superior to most of what wound up on the finished disc (including the vaguely misogynistic "C'mon, C'mon, C'mon," which nevertheless ranks as one of the most spirited, engaging rockers he's done in his solo career). This is because Besterberg rounds up B-sides and soundtrack contributions, so it's halfway between an introduction and a rarities clearing-house. Rhino has done this before with other '90s alt-rockers, but the difference here is that Westerberg really did toss off some of his most appealing songs onto B-sides and soundtracks, so compiling "Seein' Her," "Man Without Ties" (originally titled "Men Without Ties"), "A Star Is Bored," and "Stain Yer Blood" not only makes this a better listen, but it has the unfortunate side effect of showing how rough the latter half of the '90s was for Westerberg. Still, this does take the two best songs from Suicaine and has good representations of Mono, Stereo, and Come Feel Me Tremble -- just enough to give a sense of how Westerberg boxed himself into a corner where he could occasionally write a good song but was more content to just roll along. There are some good songs missing here -- in his notes, Westerberg says "Blackeyed Susan," "Ain't Got Me," and "Good Day" are among those missing in action -- but Besterberg rounds up everything of note and tells a disillusioned Replacements fan everything he needs to know. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi