I suppose it’s to his credit that former Replacements leader Paul Westerberg has largely stuck by his trademark ragged recording aesthetic, years after that approach ceased to be a necessity. So maybe we should give him a round of applause. Or maybe we should just be jealous. Westerberg has found his true love, after all, and he found it early. Sloppy, shit-stained rock ‘n’ roll is his better half, and together they’ve hacked out a turbulently harmonious twenty-plus-year relationship. We should all be so lucky. (Possibility No. three: he’s just a lazy bum.)
Addressing the various and sundry vampires and failures that have dogged his musical, ahem, career, Dead Man Shake, recorded under the moniker Grandpaboy, mythicizes this musical romance in what’s always been its native tongue: blues. Fucked-up up-tempo hootenannies like “Get a Move On” make us forget that once upon a time Westerberg actually had big-deal commercial pretensions, while the sublime slow blues “No Matter What You Say” reminds us they never quite panned out. “I went to Madison Square Garden,” croaks Saint Paul, “and I had a terrible time.”
Ah, Paulie, you probably just didn’t have enough to drink. Another beer, on me. It’ll loosen you up. Beer and blues — they just go together. Something about the music’s austere formalism naturally lending itself to (and in some ways suggesting) a lack of sobriety: just three chords, maybe four, with intermittent splatterings of flat seventh notes (it’s right there on the bottle, “Do Not Operate Heavy Machinery.” But they’re talkin’ about cars, not guitars). And there’s singing too; and while you’re up there, Paulie, you should probably try to sing words.
Everybody knows that famous Westerberg quote about the soul of rock ‘n’ roll being in the mistakes. Dead Man Shake has so much soul Jonathan Edwards couldn’t save it, and James Brown wouldn’t even try. Westerberg has cobbled together a crack band of geeks so drunk and disorderly they can barely buoy a basic 4/4. In other words, they’re perfect. But what’s even perfecter is, yup, that ragged recording aesthetic: loved the haunting shroud of fuzz surrounding “Do Right in Your Eyes” and “O.D. Blues,” and that song with the vacuum cleaner solo’s pretty neat.
Despite the album’s title, genre, and the occasional haunting shrouds therein, Dead Man Shake isn’t really about death at all; it’s mostly either good-time blues (“MPLS,” “Cleaning House”) or love-lost blues (pretty much everything else). The threnodic stuff is cannily retained until the final three songs. Culminating with Westerberg apostrophically wailing “whatever happened to Paul?” the aforementioned “O.D. Blues” makes no bones about its filth and morbidity. Midway through the song, Paul literally pukes his guts out. The title track is a graveyard boogie-stomp led by the Ghosts of Benders Past, Present, and Future. And then comes the pow-right-in-the-kisser closer, a ramshackle reworking of Sammy Davis Jr.’s “What Kind of Fool Am I?”
Of the album’s five cover tunes, “What Kind of Fool” is the one that will get all the press (Ha!), “the song Westerberg was born to sing” and so on. Well it’s true; the Grandpaboy version is a masterpiece of late-night lurch and stumble: stop the karaoke, I want to get off! Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome” is fine too. But then there’s “Souvenirs.” Written by John Prine, “Souvenirs” is such a sweet and sentimental song it had never occurred to me that it can be utterly wrecked. Westerberg puts forth his best effort to do just that, which is to say there’s hardly any effort involved, just a torrid series of grease-burn torture slide guitar lines pissing on the melody’s natural prettiness. I liked it.
This Westerberg guy, he knows what he’s doing.