J's Indie/Rock Mayhem

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Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Paul Westerberg - Folker (Vagrant Records - 2004):

For those of you who have been keeping tabs, this is Paul Westerberg's fourth new release in two and a half years. Not bad for a man who fostered all sorts of speculation about total retirement following the release of his label-ignored Suicaine Gratifaction. In retrospect, the rumors came solely from the way the album was handled by the label (read: it wasn't) and the way it sold (read: it didn't). The three year span separating that album and his 2002 "comeback" record, Stereo/Mono, was no longer than had separated the two albums before that. Still, people couldn't help, it seemed, to write off the ex-leader of one of the best American rock bands of the past 25 years.

Folker isn't going to change anyone's mind that wasn't swept up in the Stereo/Mono clamour of 2002. It is full of slight modifications to the form Westerberg has been mining since that album and if anything is collecting together the disparate (but similar) styles he has been creating on his self-titled and (pseudonymous) Grandpaboy albums. But we'll return to Grandpaboy in a bit.

First things first: Folker is a good record. I have no doubt that, in my ears, it's heads above oceans of music being released this year. However, what Folker is not is a great record. There are the requisite handful of sharp standouts that shine like the alternate-universe rock hits they were made to be ("As Far As I Know," "Lookin' Up in Heaven," "How Can You Like Him?"), but what is most perplexing about this album is how long it feels. Several songs that might easily climb into the 'sharp standout' category are quickly blindsided by their sheer length. Check the 5+ minute run time on back-to-back tracks "$100 Groom" and "23 Years Ago." Both would be excellent songs if they were only shorter. Westerberg is an anthem writer, not an album crafter. His records have never benefitted from overly long segments. And while 5 minutes may still be well within the pale for catchy songs, it just doesn't fly on these songs.

Where I think Westerberg's tweeking suffers most is in his alienation of the Stereo side for more elements of his Grandpaboy-Mono personality. The original Grandpaboy EP was a rollicking, rocking and ultimately really successful revival of the amateurish spirit which always infused the best of his creations. By amateurish in this case I don't mean lo-fi, but rather that it sounds like music being made by people who really love music and aren't necessarily in it for the money.

The Grandpaboy that debuted on the Mono half of his 2002 album was a different animal, but no less exciting. The rock was dirty, simple and most of all really fun. Meanwhile, the Paul Westerberg/Stereo half resulted in some of his most affecting and soulful singer/songwriter material and was hands down my favorite half of the album. It succeeded where Suicaine Gratifaction had failed in displaying the actual songwriting chops of Westerberg, sans the gloss of Don Was' production.

But the more Westerberg moves on (witness the Come Feel Me Tremble DVD soundtrack and Folker), the more he seems to be whole heartedly buying into the Mono sound. While it has resulted in a handful of really solid records, none of them have affected me the way Stereo continues to do. And when you've built your reputation as the poet-laureate to countless people between the age of 16 and 50 on your heart-on-your-sleeve songwriting and disarming self-effacement, well, it seems to sell your ability a little short.

The most clever (and therefore, inspiring) moment on the album comes at the tail end. "Folk Star," a rather mockish, rave up that winds up largely with Westerberg yelling "I'm a folk star," takes a humorous, tongue-in-cheek turn. It ends with a lightly strummed guitar as Westerberg sings these lines from Fairport Convention's lovely "Who Knows Where the Time Goes?": "Across the evening sky / All the birds are leaving / But how can they know / It’s time for them to go." If there's that much spark left in the old man, hopefully he won't be thinking it time to leave anytime soon.

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