Just in case his original, obscure pseudonym, Grandpaboy, was not enough to keep him semi-anonymous and at large anymore in the suburbs of Minneapolis, Paul Westerberg has taken on a second pseudonym, Mr. F, as the persona behind his new 7 inch single.
Though not quite retired, the ex-Replacement’s last official release, Folker, on Vagrant Records came out in 2004; he has not toured since then either. For the last few years, Westerberg has released the periodic batch of digital basement tapes on his own recognizance without a label’s help or control. He put out a solo EP last year. This limited-release single, “This Machine”/”Foolish Hand Shake”, and a thirty minute download bonus titled “Grandpaboy’s Last Stand” are the latest installments from his home tapes.
Luckily for us, lo-fi amateur production never interfered with a Westerberg operation before, and his basement recording dynamics don’t get in the way here either. Even the record sleeve exudes his DIY ethos, as the artwork consists of a few penciled sketches with this intriguing note scribbled in the margins: Coming Soon: Son of a Depression. Make what you will of that, you have been warned!
The good news is that he is still capable of sounding like the Westerberg we remember, all raspy ache and feisty defiance, just of the more domestic variety now. The single’s big surprise is that both songs are solo acoustic in the ragged troubadour vein; they are finished versions, but sound rough as demos. Big, open chords push his folk guitar high in the mix, as he spins a postmodern take on Woody Guthrie’s infamous guitar inscription, “This machine kills fascists,”, and topical writing style. Paul’s wit echoes, “So I stole a man’s cell phone/Just to watch him die/I made my own past/And I sang from the death/This here machine, it kills time.”
On the second side, “Foolish Hand Shake”, Paul imagines himself as a college professor who spends the night in the “drunk tank”, and gets wisdom from his broken-down cellies. He puts it on the line with, “Politics, religion, and bourbon/Is a wee bit more than I can take/I fish for my keys/Someone said, you looking for these?/And my foolish hands shake.” This is a familiar Westerberg sentiment; he has always favored the artless amateur over the sophisticated academic.
Yes, to every ‘Mats fan’s nostalgic smile, alcohol does leak from a few of these tracks—at least in content, if only possibly in practice. The download session sounds like a buzzed, schizophrenic chorus of voices, whether it’s “Elrod Puce”, another of his characters, Grandpaboy, or Mr. F, talking smack to each other in between singing the occasional song. Paul plays all the character voices, of course, in his ADHD, scattershot fashion, as he scrambles covers and originals together.
Overdubbing all the instruments as well, Paul chugs his way through a rough, bluesy “Mystery Train”. He then testifies with his own soul ballad, “Is Anybody Looking for God?”, that he saves from sincerity’s sake with the wisecrack moment-after line, “Thank Christ that’s over.” Drum roll, literally. Vintage Westerberg. Bury your heart of gold beneath smartass charm and swagger.
Who knows what Mr. F stands for? Maybe we’ve gotten to the point where we take legendary, Minnesotan songwriting enigmas for granted these days. But maybe Paul feels as if he’s finally resolved his yin/yang songwriting impulses; Grandpaboy takes care of his back-to-the-garage, rebel-rockers while Mr. F handles the raw balladry. The question remains then, what will this mean for the new music produced under Westerberg’s own name?
As always, the guy’s a hoot here, as hodgepodge, partially brilliant song fragments mingle with his loon narration. But thirty-some minutes of this are more than enough; after a while, this starts to sound like what it is: sloppy filler. As a longtime fan, I appreciate the perennial download freebies he tosses off, but I can hardly wait for his next long player. Paul plays the semi-reclusive role with relish, and yet still drops in with the occasional missive. But here’s hoping he tours again, in all his frayed, tumbledown glory, it’s high time.