WHO ARE THEY? The mighty ’Mats. The original trouble boys. The notorious Minneapolis miscreants formed by mercurial singer-songwriter Paul Westerberg, teenage bassist (and future Gunner) Tommy Stinson, his doomed guitarist brother Bob (later replaced by Slim Dunlap) and drummer Chris Mars, the Charlie Watts of the Twin Cities. Together, they were a band that should have been as big as Nirvana — and maybe, just maybe could have been if they hadn’t deliberately sabotaged and squandered every shot they had with their drunken buffoonery and nose-thumbing tomfoolery. So, beloved as they deservedly remain, there’s no getting around who they really are: The Wile E. Coyotes of rock ’n’ roll.
WHAT IS THIS? A four-disc box that revisits their best-selling (but much-maligned) sixth studio album Don’t Tell A Soul, which was remixed and resequenced to make it more commercially acceptable to the radio and the masses. Fittingly named for the original working title of the album, this box reinstates the original mix and running order, and adds nearly 50 tracks in the form of demos, outtakes, a six-song jam with Tom Waits and an entire live show (although some of these rarities were previously released in a 2008 reissue).
WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? The best of a bad situation. While some of Don’t Tell A Soul’s songs are decent enough, the overly slick album was still a big step down from their raw, wiry major-label predecessors Tim and Pleased to Meet Me. Scraping some of the gloss off the tracks helps, but it can only do so much. Thankfully, the bonus cuts fare somewhat better: Early versions of the LP numbers have more grit and growl, and some of the rarities are top-shelf. The Waits songs are also a nice treat, even though they sound like a drunken free-for-all. And the two-disc gig from Milwaukee is loose and lively, though still slightly more professional than alcohol-fuelled romps like their 1985 cassette The Shit Hits The Fans.
WHAT WOULD BE A BETTER TITLE FOR THIS ALBUM? Not-So-Sober Second Thoughts.
HOW SHOULD I LISTEN TO IT? With drinks in both hands.
WHAT 10 WORDS DESCRIBE IT? Ramshackle, unvarnished, scrappy, poignant, yearning, loose, mischievous, witty, inebriated, inconsistent.
WHAT ARE THE BEST/WORST SONGS? Album cuts like Talent Show, I’ll Be You, I Won’t and Achin’ to Be are solid entries in Westerberg’s peerless catalogue — but the disc would have been far better if it included gems like Portland, Wake Up, We Know the Night and Ought To Get Love. And let’s not forget the killer cover of Slade’s Gudbuy t’Jane.
WHAT WILL MY FRIENDS AND FAMILY SAY? ‘Some guys just can’t get out of their own way.’
HOW OFTEN WILL I LISTEN TO THIS? More often than you listened to Don’t Tell A Soul.
IF THE ORIGINAL ALBUM WERE A PUB, WHAT KIND OF PUB WOULD IT BE? A cool dive bar that some misguided fool tried to ‘fix’ with a coat of paint and curtains — only to find that all the old drunks stopped coming, and not a single new customer showed up.
SHOULD I BUY, STREAM OR STEAL IT? At $75, it’s a little pricey — unless you’re a fan. Then it’s already a steal.