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 Snow or anything like that.
I guess more like “conceptual” records.
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. 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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