After the turn of the century is where things started getting refreshingly weird.
After a three-year hiatus during which he left Capitol Records — they’d released Suicaine Gratifaction after he left Reprise following Eventually — Paul signed with the indie label Vagrant and released a pair of concept records in early 2002. But not what you would normally think of as “concept” records. It wasn’t Tales of Topographic Tundra or Northern Rock Opera anything like that.
More like “conceptual” albums.
First there was Mono, released under his nom de tune, Grandpaboy, and about a month later, it was followed by Stereo, which was released under his own name, and — crucially — contained Mono for no extra charge. The concept of Mono was riff-driven back-to-basics rock ‘n’ roll — “Recorded in Dynamic Mono” as it said on the cover — and the concept of Stereo was late-night, cry in your beer ballads, “Recorded in Realistic Stereo.”
But here’s the key concept: both albums were recorded by Paul alone in his basement. No A&R guys, no label pressure, no deadlines, no other musicians, nothing but Paul Westerberg.
And as it turned out, Stereo / Mono turned out not to be just a comeback, but the best music Westerberg had released since Pleased To Meet Me — and even now, I think, remains the best thing he’s done as a solo artist — and absolutely rejuvenated his cult.
For me, that rejuvenation came the moment “High Time” came blasting out of the speakers, featuring a big circular riff, steady beat, and of course Paul’s inimitable vocals:
It’s hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigh time
That IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII let you slide
I know it’s kind of low
But to me, it’s high time
The long notes he hits in the first two lines instantly made me break out into a grin. Gods, I love that voice, and it had been three years since I’d heard it singing any new songs. And that was topped by the chorus:
January, February, June, and July
It’s hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigh summer
I absolutely loved the almost joyful way he snaps off “sum-MER” after holding the long notes on “hiiiiiiiigh” again, helped along by deeply buried and echoed backing vocal harmonies, and instantly followed by curling squealing guitar leads. And so it goes: the riff that drives the song never backs down for even a second, the guitars are stacked to the roof and Paul’s in perfect melodic and vocal form throughout.
Paul Westerberg was having fun again! What more could you want?
Did I say refreshingly weird? Because “High Time” was also refreshingly normal for any Replacements fan, rocking with heart, brains and balls. And for the first time in a long time, it felt like Paul Westerberg was making the exact music he wanted to make, for the reasons he wanted to make it. High time, indeed.
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