After the exhilarating one-two punch of last year's Stereo/Mono, you might've expected a knockout single disc of Paul Westerberg, all killer and no filler, a disc that gave jaw-dropping ballads and inspired throwaways equal time and maybe revealed something about the cigar-chomping Minneapolitan you didn't already know.
What you've got instead is a traffic jam -- a new documentary DVD called Come Feel Me Tremble that chronicles Westerberg's solo tour in support of the Stereo/Mono set; a soundtrack CD featuring all new songs featured on the DVD that sound like outtakes from the previous year's sessions; and a Grandpaboy mess-terpiece of sloppy blues and country songs, each sold separately and each championing a new loner work ethic. While entertaining in their own way, none of these enterprises makes you feel any closer to understanding its enigmatic subject.
There's a telling moment during the DVD where Westerberg's performing "Unsatisfied" in some record store. After three minutes of imploring shoppers to "look me in the eye," he whips off his shades and asks them, "Do you see anything?" It's a come-on, like his opening statement about revealing his songwriting secret or letting you see anything real that happens to him between shows other than getting interviewed and standing around. Largely cribbed from fans' camcorders following his solo tour last year, the exciting Virgin in-store appearance where Westerberg leaped offstage and attempted to strangle a heckler for yelling out "Sonny Bono" is omitted. A bummer, since its inclusion would've put this right up there with Don't Look Back as a rock-movie must-see. Instead, Come Feel Me Tremble is a hand-held infomercial where you learn a small something about the personal life of Westerberg (his father's military career, the death of friend Katie O'Brien) but are kept from going any further. The camera shots are framed as if you're looking through a slat of a door, and Westerberg's responses are so mumbled you have to go back and replay the tape a few times before giving up.
Equally distancing are some of the improvised songwriting exercises on the soundtrack CD. While the first-take, only-take recording approach seems to have done wonders for getting Grandpaboy to come out of his shell, Westerberg does songs attributed to Paul Westerberg a disservice by denying them a finished lyric or a second pass at the vocals. By virtue of his inorganic, one-man overdubbing process, it's not as if he's trying to preserve a real moment in playing time like the aborted Beatles album Get Back was supposed to do. Here, all Westerberg is doing by not finishing a song is serving up juleps without the mint.
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Even with the obvious filler on Tremble, there are enough high moments to make you happy that Westerberg hasn't waited three years to record again. "Down in the Alley" is his most mournful ballad in years. "Making Me Go" is a lovable throwaway that could rock any pizzeria jukebox, and his cover of Jackson Browne's "These Days" reveals more naked emotion than some of his other murkier self-penned material.
Halfway through, you can hear a momentary laugh in his voice, and it could be any number of things he finds funny -- that one of this song's lonesome loser clichés actually rings true, that the turnaround sounds just like "Just Like a Woman," or maybe that he just remembered he's late for a Grandpaboy session. Whatever, it's Westerberg's best Rod Stewart moment ever in a career full of good ones.
As for Grandpaboy's Dead Man Shake, you wonder if Westerberg invests as much thought as Phil Collins did in Genesis about what crap to hoard and which to give to his flip-flop persona. "MPLS" could've just as easily been some welcome levity on the Tremble soundtrack, but no Westerberg solo album would've accommodated such a shambolistic cover of "What Kind of Fool I Am." Caught between wondering "why can't I fall in love" and "'til I don't give a damn," he gives the song the short shrift. We know Paul the sensitive songwriter loves the song, but we know that Paul the former punker can't appear to give a damn about it and risk being thought of as being too precious ever again. So he trashes Anthony Newley with simulated drunken abandon for the members of his audience base that aren't so enamored of being clean and sober. As a whole, the album maintains a mood of blues-bar after-hours drunkenness, mostly because Westerberg plays everything sloppy but everything's also in time.
This swarm of albums proves Paul Westerberg's muse is alive and well and singing about drinking again. My guess is the next record is the one that shuts up hecklers for good and actually gets baby boomer shoppers to redistribute their Goo Goo Dolls dollar.