About 18 months ago, I heard that Tommy Stinson was recording, in bits and pieces, tracks for a forthcoming solo release, a release that would mark the follow-up to 2004's brilliant "Village Gorilla Head." I make no secrets and can tell no lies, the news was electrifying. Anyone who knows me, or, thanks to Facebook, anyone of the hundreds who don't know me but call me "friend" would know that The Replacements (the first band Stinson played in) and the subsequent work of its members stands at the very pinnacle of what I consider the best rock ever recorded.
This is particularly the case with the post-'Mats work of Stinson, who, in my opinion, has produced among the most provocative, engaging, honest, and fresh music over the past 20 years. His records, released in fits and starts, beginning with Bash and Pop, transitioning to the hard-rocking outfit Perfect, and then his solo effort, the aforementioned "Village Gorilla Head," have captured the guttural essence of the imperfect, flawed, and, sometimes, painful lives most of us live.
And then the new release, "One Man Mutiny" arrived.
Any real fan of an artist or band will readily admit, there is always some trepidation to listening to the music you have (so impatiently) been waiting to hear. You know, that feeling, or perhaps rather that fear, there is "no way" it will live up to expectations. And we all have expectations, usually unrealistic, often unmet, of the artists we respect. Or sometimes we take a different tack, and claim something as being "classic" when in fact, it truly is poorly conceived. A letdown ignored. Both happen.
Well, here is the short version of this review. While I'm sure commercial success will elude Stinson, as it usually does with most of the artists I respect (certainly any Mats-affiliated artists), this record is among one of the very best albums I have ever heard. Yes, I said "album" and yes, I said "very best." But it is now to the longer review I will turn.
The opening track, "Don't Deserve You'' sets the tone for this record in much the same way a malfunctioning GPS unit sets the tone for an unexpected, dangerous, and yet imminently fulfilling trip. You know the story: you plug in directions from A to Z and it routes you, in turns, through the most risky areas, the most run-down areas, the most beautiful areas, and then, eventually, gets you to your destination. You have an idea of where Stinson is about to take you, but you have no idea on how he is going to get there.
Musically, Stinson takes us on a journey that spans 1950s Texas Swing, 1960s proto-punk, 1970s Faces/Stones blues/rock, modern-era "alternative rock", and drunken saloon songs, sometimes with slide guitar, steel guitar, and even yodeling. Yes. Yodeling. All the while, he manages the unimaginable feat of holding it all together in a tight, 10-song set. Indeed, the sequencing of songs on this record makes it feel as if you have been on a journey, traveling with Stinson and his crew of band mates.
Our journey, our travel with Stinson, however, is fraught with anger, angst, anxiety, and frustration, all pervasive themes on this record. It's as if the journey, as dictated to us by the fucked-up GPS unit leads to dead ends, down allies and backstreets we don't want to be on, or back to places we've been to but don't want to be at now.
From the start of ``Don't Deserve You'', we are made immediately clear this is not a reprise of "Village Gorilla Head" or, for that matter, anything else Stinson has recorded. Channeling perfectly 1960s garage rock (think The Standells, Blues Magoos, Count Five), Stinson comes out swinging. I'll let you decide who the object of his derision is in this song (I have my own ideas) but suffice it to say, I would not want to be that object. He does not pull punches here. This is not a polite song. Lyrics like "You take your life like you take your liquor, cold and hard in a plastic shaker," are all sung in a voice that is truly, eminently angry and bitter. The song makes it clear Stinson has some things on his mind, things he's gonna get off his chest. A jailbreak. Or as The Dead Boys signal in the punk classic "Sonic Reducer": "I got some news for you, I don't need you too."
From the anger of "Don't Deserve You", Stinson steers us into "It's a Drag," a song one imagines is played in a smoke-filled bar with a loud PA system and an "I don't give a fuck" band playing hard, loud, and drunk. It is on this song when we realize Chip Roberts' slide guitar, first heard on "Don't Deserve You", is going to punctuate this record with undulating urgency. Roberts' playing beautifully serves as a score to Stinson's travels, a sort-of sidekick along for the ride. The song itself brings modern sensibility to The Faces or Exile-era Stones without seeming mocking or redundant. As with all the songs here, Stinson, somehow, figures out a way to make everything current, fresh, and honest. In reference to the band he imagines playing this song, he is explicit: "it's a drag when no one's havin' fun" (slide guitar enter).
The anger and resentment evinced on the first two tracks abruptly changes on "Meant to Be" a song so deeply longing, one punctuated by thoughts of what should be and, more importantly, what likely will never be--a theme Stinson revisits later. The couple in the song is hopelessly lost, forever in each others' grasp, but never really able to hold on. "Baby we're just walkin' hazards, maybe we always knew when to duck" conveys the sentiment. This particular song may be the most "radio-friendly" song on the album (whatever that means these days) and for good reason. The play between Stinson's guitar work and Roberts' slide guitar is immaculate and tells as much of the story as the words do. The backing vocals by Emily Roberts (who sings on every song but one on the record) serves as a perfect counter to Stinson's, giving emotive resonance to the desperation of the situation playing out in this song. As a side note, Stinson makes two allusions in his lyrics I found compelling. In one verse, we find a man on a ledge realizing what the "one way down" is, and in the chorus, Stinson makes reference to being in the back of a car. Whether these allusions were intentionally meant to invoke the The Replacements' "The Ledge" and Big Star's "Back of a Car" (I suspect not), they invoked these songs in me. I consider that a good thing.
Following this track, we come to "All This Way for Nothing", a song, self-evident in its title, that evokes a futile journey: "you come all this way for nothing," a trip traveled on a "broken road." Despite the theme Stinson contemplates, the song is a bright exploration of a dark outcome. Indeed "One Man Mutiny" is brilliant on this score. Stinson can pen the most painful, heartfelt lyrics without ever sounding maudlin, morose, or cliched.
The broken road of this song leads us to the next track, "Come to Hide," a song that may be the most lyrically and musically complex song on the record. Consider these lines: "Always laughin' 'bout L.A./The trick's to laugh where no one sees you cry/ Always need a good place to lay your gods(?) /Like you need a good place to lie./ Maybe just to stretch the truth ..." Beautiful. Brilliant. But the song is really two songs. The first part is the closest we come to "Village Gorilla Head"-era Stinson: "You're holdin' on for dear life, you're holdin' on too tight" brings to mind "Not a Moment Too Soon." But the second part of the song, easily identifiable by the one-note piano keys of what sounds like a child's toy piano, takes us far away from VGH. The child's piano, I think, is important here. The antagonist of the song is truly looking for a place to hide, like a child looking for shelter in a storm. But sadly, the child never finds that shelter, never finds that place to hide. And absent that place, he returns to where he was before, naked and exposed.
After "Come to Hide," a brilliant album becomes truly sublime. I don't have a vinyl version of "One Man Mutiny" but I would guess "side 2" commences with the track "Seize the Moment." This song, one that propels our journey forward in zig-zag manner, is interestingly titled similarly to Saul Bellow's 1956 novella "Seize the Day." As with Bellow's character, Wilhelm Adler, the protagonist in "Seize the Moment" never seizes the moment. Forever stuck, Stinson almost implores the object of the song to see something larger. She never does and instead hides insularly. Stinson tells her to "stick another bandaid on your mood" but she doesn't get the hint. She never leaves the current: "You could use a GPS from that old stop sign." Move on. She never does. And she watches "a moment you can't have" wander by, like so many others, perpetually stuck. Stuck.
But stuck where?
"Zero to Stupid" tells us. Brilliantly titled, this song co-written with Chip Roberts takes a neck-breaking turn to a fascinating area of "One Man Mutiny." How Stinson can evoke Lefty Frisell, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, and Ernest Tubb on the same album as The Faces, The Dead Boys, and Big Star is beyond me, as a blogger, to explain. But he does. Surely he is assisted by Chip Roberts' yodeling, a necessary addition. Indeed, it seems right. The protagonist of the song, we imagine, at a bar in Midland, Texas, thinks to himself, "I just can't go from zero to stupid in just one ... in just one ... in just one ... in just one ... ONE DRINNNNNKKKKK." And as a side note, I think Stinson (intentionally or not) evokes the Gn'R song "Used to Love Her", the antagonist noting "She used to love me, now she hates me." Talk about turning a lyric on its head. Brilliant.
And things get more interesting.
"Zero to Stupid" transitions to "Match Made in Hell." Replacements alert: this song is co-written with P. Westerberg. The musical vibe, underscored by Chip Roberts's guitar and Emily Roberts vocals, resonates with Texas Swing and Hawaiian country. The song itself provides a punctuation mark to the dysfunctionality evinced on the record: "We're missin' every sign/ It's a matter of fact we're both equally inept./ As a matter of fact it's failure we expect." And Stinson continues, "As a matter of fact we're both equally to blame/ as a matter of fact we're legally insane." Replacements fans will love this.
After "Zero to Stupid" the bearings change, heading us for home. The first stop? "Destroy Me." This passionate interplay between Stinson and Emily Roberts' vocals reprises some themes we've seen before. "Don't dim the lights baby, I couldn't bear not to see" reminds us of "Come to Hide". This song drops the Texas swing and returns to the urgency of "Meant to Be", the heartfelt look of two lovers who (forgive the allusion, but I can think of none better) are aching to be. Stinson writes, he and Roberts sing, "I love the way you look when you destroy me." Emily Roberts' voice serves equivalently as a musical instrument and beautiful counter to Stinson's vocals. There is aching, desire, passion, and love in this song.
And then this journey comes to an end with track number 10. The title track, "One Man Mutiny," is a raw song. Raw. Live. Drunken. Evocative. Raw. Did I say raw? It counters perfectly the lead track, "Don't Deserve You." Where "Don't Deserve You" is angry, resentful, and bitter, "One Man Mutiny" is thoughtful, forward, and wistful. It seems clear Stinson has a lot to say in this song. Recorded with several band mates from Guns n' Roses, live and raw in the wee hours of a Brussels morning, the song stakes a position: a polite, yet forceful, fuck you.
Tommy Stinson has had much asked of him. "Why not a Replacements' reunion?" "Why be in Guns n' Roses?" "What do you make of this, that, and the other?" "What about Paul?" "What about Axl?" etc. etc. etc. So when Stinson writes "I can hear everything you say and I just don't give a damn. Say you got 10 good reasons -- I 'bout got 10 you ain't ever had," you know he hears the cacophony of voices and dosen't really care.
This underscores the central point of the record. It is a one man mutiny.
The playing is brilliant, mostly Tommy and Chip Roberts. The singing is phenomenal, Tommy and Emily Roberts. The additional players contribute indelibly to the record, making "One Man Mutiny" an unforgettable trip.
Below is a link to "One Man Mutiny."
Tommy Stinson - "One Man Mutiny"