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Paul Westerberg – 49:00

on July 30, 2008, 12:40pm
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This might piss off a few Mid-westerners, but consider this an apology. There’s not much that Minnesota can brag about. It’s cold, it’s tucked away above two other boring states, and there’s a lack of diversity there. When your demographics are 87% White, it’s hard to consider yourself culturally significant. On a positive note, they’re strong environmentalists, their summers are pretty, and they happened to birth one of the greatest American rock acts of the past thirty years, The Replacements. More specifically, Minnesota is responsible for Paul Westerberg.

Following the ‘Mats last album, All Shook Down (1990), which is moreover a Westerberg solo outing, the former frontman went off on his own. It took three years, and a soundtrack to boot (1992’s Singles), but Westerberg found his footing in 1993’s 14 Songs. It wasn’t The Replacements, but those that had stuck around long enough to survive through All Shook Down, would have seen hints of this new sound in songs “Nobody”, “Merry Go Round”, or “Someone Take The Wheel.” Despite being loaded with musicians, including appearances from former members of Georgia Satellites and Faces, the album still retained a raw sensibility. It was clear that Westerberg was running ahead, without turning around. It’s only now that he seems to be all nostalgic, returning to such form, and on the awkward release of 49:00.

Released via his official site (well, Amazon.com, actually) for a whopping .45 cents, 49:00 is actually titled 49:00 minutes of your time life. Maybe it’s a joke, but the album is just under 44 minutes, and it’s one constant, moving track. In other words, there are no song titles, some of the songs cut out short, and there are even covers here. It almost sounds as if one recorded it off a warped radio station, which had been sabotaged by ol’ Westie himself. Though this works more as an edge, paralleling the raw simplicity in Westerberg’s new material. It’s a step above listening to demos, which by all means is exciting.

By the first song, loosely titled “Who You Gonna Marry?”, it’s clear the folk mentality seen in 2004’s Folker (and oddly enough in 2006’s Open Season soundtrack) is taking backseat. This is Westerberg in old form, complete with a driving acoustic, a simple beat, and catchy riffage. He adds some pop too, with a sing-a-long chorus (“Terry, who you gonna marry?”), and some of that 90’s flair in the bridge. Most important is that the story is relating, which shouldn’t be a surprise, considering it’s why the man has legions of fans to this day. “Kentucky Risin'” owes itself to the last few records, sounding more like a b-side than anything. While the three minute opus, “Something in My Life Is Missing”, might give reason to the entire project. With a sprawling chorus, a jangly chord progression, and crooning vocals, it’s as if Westerberg has no problem hitting the stony barrier that conditions the listener’s soul. Hell, that might explain such a lyric, “He writes like a Mid-western Shakespeare/in a tiny perfect hand.” Self aggrandizing much? Oh, we’ll let it go.

“Visitor’s Day” clocks in next, which is a nice if not forgettable “bluesgrass” number, extending its stay a tad too long. Then there’s lil’ snippets of songs, sounding like a few clicks of the radio dial, splicing together what must have been unused demos. It’s a clever segue into other songs and it’s the filter throughout the album. After all this madness, “Devil Raised A Good Boy” (loosely titled, mind you) shatters through, complete with electric guitars, unnerving solos, and windmill chord work. It’s the closest thing yet to a reunion of his former band, only of sound and not of members. The next legible song is “Everyone’s Stupid” which is bouncy but a bit elementary, though that’s the point… look at the song title.

The soft ballad, “Goodnight, Sweet Prince”, climbs and climbs. It sounds more like a rough recording than an actual finished song. This is intriguing, however, considering ballads of this type are typically polished and reworked ten fold. There are some odd notes vocally, specifically in the sustained keys, but overall Westerberg’s vocals come out unscathed. “Outta My System” is clean fun; an easy, predictable song that should be second nature to the songwriter at this point.

Towards the end, things start dwindling down. “C’mon Be My Darling” is one of the few glossy songs, with a few hooks both instrumentally and vocally. One might consider this a case of objective songwriting too, a Mad Libs if you will, where the listener can really adjust it to their own liking. When Westerberg reels out lyrics, “It ain’t mine/pair of help me eyes/come on be my darlin'”, it’s anyone’s guess to who he’s describing, but isn’t that the fun of it all?

Aside from a short medley of covers, ranging from The Beatles to Elton John, Simon & Garfunkel to Alice Cooper, there isn’t much else here. A few one minute songs show some exciting things that happened in the studio, with the closing track dissolving into a madness of screaming and distortion. To summarize, it all goes to hell.

For an artist who had put out release after release, it’s good to see some experimentation. 49:00 is a refreshing, new outlook for the Minnesota native. It shows he’s working things out, perhaps feeling the years. Maybe he is, considering his December birthday is just around the corner (Is it coincidental that he turns 49?). There’s nothing wrong with that, some of an artist’s best work surfaces during this time. There’s usually a bittersweet moment of nostalgia, and here it shows, working more like a scrapbook, with trimmings here and there and the seams showing. There’s honesty in that and while one long, running track is the least accessible method in music these days, perhaps that’s a good thing. We’re cultured in singles, spoiled with one trick wonders, and always hungry for the next. This begs for your time.

And just 44 minutes.

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