The list of bands I should be listening to will always be longer than the list of bands I am listening to, and the older I get, the further back in time I’m reaching on the former list.
The Replacements is a band I should have been listening to when I was growing up. At one point, I owned the final two Mats albums on cassette — Don’t Tell a Soul and All Shook Down (although All Shook Down was pretty much a Paul Westerberg solo album credited to the Replacements.) I liked Don’t Tell a Soul but not enough to turn me into a Replacements fan.
I noticed in the last six months, the opening riff of "Talent Show" became an earworm — I’d hum it or hear it in my mind out of the blue. On a buying spree that netted both R.E.M.’s And I Feel Fine and Siouxsie and the Banshees’ The Very Best, I threw in Don’t You Know Who I Think I Was? with them. It’s both shocking and exciting to discover something on which I missed out.
The waning days of the Replacements found the band taking on a polished sheen. Matt Wallace’s production of Don’t Tell a Soul screamed "radio-friendly", and in fact, "I’ll Be You" was the highest charting single from the band, peaking just below the Top 40. That was the first impression I had of the band, and it was inaccurate.
The opening tracks of Don’t You Know Who I Think I Was? reveal a brash and rough band, making up with speed and passion what it lacked in technique or dexterity. And there was always a hint of the rural lurking around the edges. The evidently remastered sound of "Takin’ a Ride" gives the song a lot of punch, but I bet it sounded just as great muddied on vinyl. The live sound on "Shiftless When Idle" gives a great sense of the Mats’ young dynamic.
As the collection progresses, so does Westerberg’s writing. "I Will Dare" feels rooted in the same creative pool that yielded "Kids Don’t Follow" while still being light years away from it. The eerie mix of guitar and disembodied voices on "Answering Machine" makes for a nice departure from the band’s standard rock-bass-drums setup.
The songs also get more melodic, not that "Color Me Impressed" or "Within Your Reach" were any less so. "Bastards of Young" and "Alex Chilton" deserve the breathless accolades they’ve gotten over the years.
Perhaps the most surprising turn comes at the end, with two new songs recorded specifically for the collection. Fifteen years after the band’s demise, Westerberg manages to keep the new songs in tone with the old stuff. If it weren’t for the big studio sound, "Message to the Boys" could have been a coupling track with "Here Comes a Regular".
Don’t You Know Who I Think I Was? is a tight retrospective on a band whose influence would not be felt till a generation later. And as it turned out, I didn’t know who I thought the Replacements were.