Paul Westerberg – Come Feel Me Tremble
Unlike many of his postpunk counterparts, Paul Westerberg never seemed to mind, at least in theory, the idea of writing catchy, perfectly constructed pop songs, and his early solo work (1993’s 14 Songs, a handful of tracks on the Singles soundtrack) bore this out. Westerberg spent most of the last decade in what used to be called seclusion, touring infrequently and making the occasional solo album, each one increasingly more shaggy than the one before, and each one routinely proclaimed to be his best in years.
After years of sporadic activity, Westerberg has suddenly become omnipresent. In the past two years, he’s issued two solo albums under his own name and two others under the name Grandpaboy, he’s toured consistently, and he’s the subject of a documentary.
The first full-length Grandpaboy effort, Mono, was a crackling, lo-fi rock record meant to suggest the rollicking abandon of a middle-period Replacements album, even though it never really did. Its new follow-up, Dead Man Shake, is an even-lower-fi disc vaguely reminiscent of Doug Martsch’s similarly bare and bluesy Now You Know. (That Dead Man Shake is being released by Fat Possum, home to countless semi-rehabilitated elderly blues musicians, should tell you something.)
Though Martsch was an alt-rock icon who came by his affections honestly, Westerberg’s progression from indie icon to flawed singer-songwriter to country-blues purveyor isn’t necessarily a logical one; his previous affection for the blues never seemed to extend past the Box Tops. That said, he sounds oddly at home on Dead Man Shake, a rattle-trap collection of roadhouse blues, ballads and covers that includes a near-perfect version of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, a selection so obvious for him that it’s a wonder no one thought of it sooner.
It isn’t a great album, or even a particularly good one, but there’s such a cheery incongruity to it that even though it’s not always easy to tell whether Westerberg’s fondness for the blues is entirely genuine, it almost doesn’t matter. Dead Man Shake occasionally threatens to spin from homage to camp, but the stripped-down, record-ending cover of “What Kind Of Fool Am I?” is moving enough to suggest that, years from now, Westerberg could have an American Recordings-style twilight career as an interpreter, even though, unlike Johnny Cash, he can’t actually sing.
When Westerberg began recording as Grandpaboy in the late ’90s, a pseudonym was necessary to delineate between those rough-and-tumble basement recordings and Westerberg’s glossier “official” albums, though the distinction is becoming increasingly pointless. His recent recordings under his own name are pared down and sloppy enough that in places, there’s only a nominal difference between the two identities.
Come Feel Me Tremble is his loosest and most ragged solo record yet, the one that comes closest, while still not coming very close at all, to sounding like a Replacements record. Which is to say it’s an occasionally brilliant, occasionally middling effort that suggests both Warren Zevon and the better moments from Keith Richards’ solo catalogue, in equal measure.
The album, a studio-recorded soundtrack of sorts to the documentary film/DVD of the same name, features numerous tracks that were played on Westerberg’s most recent tour (including the famed “Crackle And Drag”, a strummy suicide ballad that’s better in theory). The rest only sound familiar: “Meet Me Down The Alley” is a fine “Skyway”-type ballad; “Pine Box” and the rave-up “Knockin’ ‘Em Back” sound exactly as you think they would. A somewhat surprising closer is his take on Jackson Browne’s “These Days”.
Like most Westerberg solo records, Come Feel Me Tremble is never as great as past history suggests it should be, but just good enough to leave you thinking the next one will surely be better. The immediate future will bring plenty of reasons for such hope: The documentary will be out November 11 on DVD, and Folker, Westerberg’s much-talked-about new folk record, is tentatively set for release next spring.