REPLACING THE MATS

Bash & Pop
Friday Night Is Killing Me
(Sire)

Chris Mars
75% Less Fat
(Smash/Island)

How do we miss the Replacements? Let's count the ways. Not to get gooey, but if you miss the Mats and are tired of playing "Bastards of Young" or "I.O.U." to death, cheer up. Uncover those scabrous, unhealed wounds first opened by a treacherous cover of "Radio Free Europe," a blistering version of "Red Red Wine" or the sight of Bob Stinson in a dress and pour in these two salty albums. The pain will be delicious.

Both of these discs are telling examples of the two things that made the Mats great, as well as the thing that killed them.

The playing on both albums proves what a magnificently honed weapon singer-guitarist Paul Westerberg, drummer Chris Mars, bassist Tommy Stinson and guitarist Bob Stinson (later replaced by Slim Dunlap) had become after a million reckless, brilliant live shows. Mars plays nearly every instrument heard on 75% Less Fat. And both Tommy Stinson and, to a lesser degree, Mars can sing.

More important, the quality of the songwriting here proves that after years of being close to the Westerberg songwriting genius, Stinson and Mars developed a creative osmosis through which they absorbed his style and became credible, if similar, songwriters.

This last point is especially evident on the debut by Mats bassist Tommy Stinson's band, Bash & Pop. From the opener, "Never Aim to Please," a tune straight out of Don't Tell a Soul-era Replacements, through the title cut, which taps into the Mats' late sensitive side (think "Achin' to Be"), the songs here could fit convincingly on any recording from Tim on. Which is another way of saying Friday Night Is Killing Me is Stinson's twist on what finally did his former band in: maturity. Only on "Fast and Hard" do Tommy Stinson and his mates manage to work up the kind of snotty, loud Stones/punk groove that made the Mats so exciting. Although it manages to work up a stompin' rhythm, "Loose Ends," for example, is the kind of personal, sensible endorsement of adulthood that made the last Mats album, All Shook Down, such a snoozer.

But neither Stinson nor Mars has forsaken loud, driving rock like Westerberg has (Paul's upcoming solo recording may change that). And the inevitable comparisons to Westerberg do not denigrate the fact that Stinson has penned a solid collection of tunes and assembled a rockin' band. As punky mainstream rock-pop recordings go, there are none better this season than Friday Night Is Killing Me.

Although the two recordings have sonic similarities, Mars' 75% Less Fat is a pure solo project. As the Replacement whose break with Westerberg got ugly, you'd think Mars might try to distance himself more from the Mats'--i.e., Westerberg's--sound. Compared to Stinson's obvious Replacementesque effort, Mars has. But while the raggedy, raga guitar tones are the most striking difference between this disc and his past, Mars doesn't stray from the alternative-punk-mainstream rock path that the Mats' final recordings traveled.

Much less pop-oriented than Tommy Stinson's debut, Mars' 75% Less Fat also contains less songwriting. Overall, it's a well-played, well-produced recording that in the end fails to make any lasting impression. The songs suffer from a certain sameness. After a few spins, you get the feeling that these songs could have been sequenced in any order. There's no spice, no kick and very little verve. Kind of like most fat-free food.

The only distinguishable flavor here is venom, which Mars spews on his ex-bandmates in the bluntly titled "No Bands." It's always dangerous to get too literal about lyrics (particularly those of an ex-Replacement), but when Mars sings, "Tell us all about your new entourage/Better yet, just save your breath/Now here's a quarter, go phone someone who cares/You bore me to tears," it's not hard to discern who this angry drummer is speaking to.

Both of these albums are the prelude to the real Phoenix-rising-from-the-Replacements ashes to come. In a few weeks, Westerberg's first solo recording--although Mars and others would argue that All Shook Down fits that bill--will be out. Originally titled 12 Songs, the album had two more tunes added two weeks ago and so is now slated to be called 14 Songs. Whether it will be rockin' like the Mats past or soft and happy like All Shook Down is the tantalizing question. Either way, it's fitting that Westerberg, always the center of the Mats' stormy, sloppy, essential saga, should provide the coda for what was one of the best rock n' roll bands ever.

 
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