When I resumed listening to new music late last year, I was especially eager to hear some new old music: The Replacements reissues, released by Rhino throughout '08. The Replacements are one of my all-time favorite bands, but I've never heard much from them in the way of black market material, so more than the records themselves–which I'd been meaning to pick up on CD anyway–I was excited about the assortment of outtakes, demos and rarities that Rhino had assembled for each disc. Well, this past week I finally got to spend some time with the Replacements discs, and guess what? There's really not much new material on there worth getting excited about.

In retrospect, I shouldn't have been surprised. In their decade of existence, The Replacements released eight records, and none were epic in length, nor were they–I hate to say–filler-free. In the '80s, Paul Westerberg apparently wrote just as many songs as he needed to fill up an album, even if he had to grind through a "Lay It Down Clown" or "Shooting Dirty Pool" before he could punch out for the day. Judging by the audio evidence, Westerberg wasn't like a Ryan Adams, whipping up a new song every time he brushed his teeth or walked his dog.

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But Westerberg did have something in common with Adams (besides trying to fast-track his way to rock 'n' roll immortality through substance abuse and public loutishness). Like Adams, Westerberg was an opportunist with a chip on his shoulder and a major inferiority complex. Adams was initially drawn to alt-country because he had a knack for writing rootsy songs, and felt he stood a better chance of getting noticed in the alt-country scene than in punk or indie-rock. Similarly, Westerberg latched onto a bunch of local lunkheads so that he could find a backdoor to becoming a rock star. Self-destructive behavior aside, Westerberg never really belonged in the punk scene per se. Just as New York Dolls strived to be a budget-priced version of The Rolling Stones, The Replacements were really playing a loud, fast, drunken version of classic rock.

Which means that even though the 'Mats outtakes on the Rhino reissues are largely unspectacular, they do reveal a little about what was going on behind the scenes. Take a listen to "Shape Up," demo-ed for The Replacements' debut album, Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash:

Scrape away the bratty demeanor on Sorry Ma, and most of the songs on that record are straight-up roadhouse rockers–a connection that's more readily apparent on "Shape Up." If The Replacements had emerged in a different scene–like Minutemen coming out of the boonies of San Pedro, or Meat Puppets in suburban Arizona–perhaps Westerberg could've embraced the mainstream more openly. But Minneapolis had a thriving punk scene–complete with all the usual constricting codes of behavior–and though Westerberg made fun of the punks in songs like Sorry Ma's "Something To Dü," he knew which side his bread was buttered on… at least in the early going.

The band followed Sorry Ma (the disc of which has arguably the best collection of outtakes and demos, by the way) with the more hardcore-inclined EP Stink. Yet it's telling that the Stink disc includes this previously unreleased gem, "You're Getting Married:"

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According to legend, when Westerberg played the demo of "You're Getting Married" for his bandmates, they looked at him like he was crazy. Westerberg had to find a way around the skepticism of his cohorts and the strictures of the punk scene–which he did in an unexpected way. The Replacements' next album Hootenanny is a gloriously sloppy collection of ravers, goof-offs and ballads assembled seemingly at random, as though the band just got drunk in the studio one night and bashed out a bunch of songs, in true don't-give-a-shit punk rock fashion. So I was surprised when I heard the Hootenanny reissue and heard this alternate version of "Lovelines:"

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The impression I'd gotten from the more familiar version of "Lovelines" was that it had been completely improvised, with Westerberg reading aloud from the newspaper personal ads while the band choogled merrily along. But this alternate take reveals that the song always had a definite structure, and though the words Westerberg reads here are mostly different than the ones on the official take, they're not entirely different. Clearly there was a little trial-and-error at work–a plan, of a kind. And thinking of Hootenanny as a planned-out record instead of a happy accident subtly alters its significance in The Replacements' discography. It's always been a transitional record, marking the band's move away from punk-for-punk's-sake, and their admission that they were too untamed and obnoxious to adhere to any one musical ethos. Now Hootenanny seems more calculated, like Westerberg's attempt to sneak his more mature songs past his band and his fans (and, if Micheal Azerrad's Our Band Can Be Your Life is accurate, his producer) by pretending he couldn't really control himself.

Whatever the rationale behind the change, clearly it had the desired effect, since The Replacements followed up Hootenanny with their best album, Let It Be–a record that channeled their punkier energies into songs that were more fleshed out, hooky, and even sentimental. The rarities on the Let It Be reissue aren't that great, but the disc does contain arguably the best of the previously unreleased songs, an uptempo (and fully Westerbergian) number called "Perfectly Lethal":

The Replacements story post-Let It Be is a fascinating one on multiple levels, but primarily for the way Westerberg at once fought like hell–even if it meant alienating his colleages–to parlay the critical attention he was receiving into stardom, and fought the star-making system. The band never recorded a bad album–I'm of the opinion that the final album, the much-maligned All Shook Down, is sorely underrated–but neither did they ever recapture that singular mood and sound of Let It Be, an album which seemed so wise, snarky, brisk and autumnal. The records that followed were beefy where they needed to be lean, or sloppy where they needed to be tight.

The best song on the latter-period Replacements reissues is one that's seen the light of day before, on the Sire anthology All For Nothing/Nothing For All: it's a snappy folk-rock tune called "Portland:"

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Replacements fans hearing "Portland" for the first time will recognize its repeated line "It's too late to turn back / Here we go" from the closing moments of Don't Tell A Soul's "Talent Show." Hearing it here is like hearing the snippet of "Pure & Easy" in The Who's "The Song Is Over"–it's a suggestion of a larger world that the band's songs all inhabit. But the fact that Westerberg returned to the line also suggests that he found some personal meaning in it. To trace The Replacements' history is to follow a band that kept making big leaps… even if they only ended up leaping from margin to margin. Throughout, Westerberg puts on a show of being cocky and above it all, but what makes him such a rewarding songwriter is that the brashness is so clearly a byproduct of his insecurity. He's like one of those lovable losers who shoots himself in the foot so he won't have to prove how fast he can run.

I wish The Replacements reissues contained a cache of buried gems, but maybe it's better that they don't. The albums themselves are still superb, and the context is edifying. Westerberg is an ideal case study for how with some musicians, failure becomes an essential part of their art.