They're twin pillars, bookend icons, the longtime alpha wolves of the alternative pack. Their style of music, considered left of the dial when Generation X was only halfway through the alphabet, is now in heavy rotation, and they'd be as wealthy as Alanis Morissette and all the Blowfish in the sea if influence paid residuals.
They're Paul Westerberg and Bob Mould.
And they're still around.
Westerberg was the Replacements' permanent genius in the post-New Wave '80s. Mould, a fellow Minnesotan, headed up HYsker DY at the same time. Westerberg has just released his second solo CD, Mould his third. The results aren't nearly as crucial to the rock lexicon as the music either man put out a decade ago, when each led his respective band--and, subsequently, alterna-rock in general--out of the indie underground to major-label prominence.
Westerberg's new release, the aptly titled Eventually, comes almost three years after his first post-Replacements solo album, 14 Songs, and the newer material is appropriately more mature. 14 Songs careened all over the road, skidding and sliding from ballad to midtempo tune to all-out ramma-lamma rocker. Westerberg rides the brakes on Eventually, sticking mostly to jaunty, slap-happy rhythms behind his ever-scruffy vocals. And it's Westerberg's vocals that turn out to be this album's main draw. His fractured croon has always had an instinctively downbeat nature, a voice that would always be looking away if it had eyes. But Westerberg's singing also holds a flash of irony and optimism, a mix that was perfectly in place as far back as 1983's "Color Me Impressed," off the Replacements' Hootenanny LP.
That ability to sing softly past the graveyard hits with even greater impact on Eventually, because of last year's death of original Replacements guitarist Bob Stinson. Indeed, many of the CD's songs are tinged with references to the troubled Stinson, who ended his legendary drug-and-alcohol problems by putting an end to himself. On "Hide N Seekin'," Westerberg's vocals are set against a stark background as he asks, "Is that you peekin' out from that hat/Hide n seekin' behind a beer that's gone flat." He sings like he's referring to himself, as he did ten years ago on "Here Comes a Regular," on the Replacements' best album, Tim, but the undercurrent of Stinson's death scours the newer song's vibrancy to an ominous monochrome. Later, toward the end of the album, there's an even more obvious nod to Stinson, with Westerberg, behind a reflective piano-and-cello accompaniment, reminding himself and anyone listening that "a good day/Is any day that you're alive."
It doesn't sound like Bob Mould's had many good days at all since his band Sugar broke up last year. Mould's new album comes off angrier and more bitter than Westerberg's. This self-titled disc solos in every sense of the word, with busy Bob singing and playing all the instruments on songs that rarely make it past the steam coming off the top of his head. "This one's for me," Mould writes on the last line of the insert booklet he designed himself, and he sounds like he means it.
The mood is set from the start with the opening cut, "Anymore Time Between," an edgy ballad that features Mould repeatedly imploring himself "not to cry anymore" amid lines like "Look at me/Look at me/I'm as useless as can be." Mould's angst is tempered by the way he fits his tirades into soaring melodies. "Deep Karma Canyon," for example, has a killer hook that ranks with his all-time best, the cascade of guitars and vocals so enveloping and energetic it almost keeps you from noticing the dour lyrics. But Mould continues to wear his bitterness like a badge on "Hair Stew"("I see you sleep with him/And, yeah, I guess that's cool/I just stand at the foot of the bed and now you watch me stew") and the equally brusque "Next Time That You Leave."
Mould has always been up-front about his fear and trembling--he titled an earlier solo album Black Sheets of Rain--but rarely has he been so determined in his anguish. He seems especially touchy about his current place in the pantheon of rock gods. "There's other icons flying higher now," he screams on the pointed "I Hate Alternative Rock," adding, "As you grab for the past/Now you know it won't last . . . The myth disintegrates."
Westerberg, too, shows signs of squirming on his throne. He berates a groupie on one song, and on another he sings that he's "had it with the friend who uses me/To open doors like I was a skeleton key." But where Westerberg shrugs his shoulders at the vagaries of fame, Mould seems to take it to the bone. He ends his album by yelling "Everything you hate/Is everything you created" over his familiar and often-imitated wall-of-chain-saw guitar attack. Mould better get used to it. Whether he likes it, pop music is currently in love with everything he hates--including, from a distance, Mould himself.