One's the "official" release, the soundtrack to a documentary in which the subject plays everything but says next to nothing; the other offers sloppy seconds performed under the pseudonym that lets a minor legend get away with murdering Hank Williams, John Prine and, gulp, Anthony Newley. Figures that the latter bests the former and then some, since Paul Westerberg's always been a guy who makes it right by getting it all wrong. "What kind of fool am I?" he wonders at the close of Dead Man Shake, his "blues" and "country" collection in the same way Hootenanny was his former band's "roots" offering. Oh, but he knows the answer, hiding behind reflective shades and cigar smoke. He's the kind of fool who wears his heart on the same sleeve he'll wipe his nose on and then call it art, behind a smirk that suggests he's all put-on when all he wants to do is break down and cry 'cause he's so lonesome and shit. Ever wonder why most of the Replacements songs that hold up are the slow ones? It's because they meant something to him. The other ones, the Rolling Faces rockers, were for the adoring audience that thought him best when drunk and stupid and confused a hangover for honesty.
He's doomed to compete with his past, and so failure has become Westerberg's favorite obsession, his newest pastime. The 'Mats, he insists in the doc, were supposed to fail "on the grandest scale possible," and see if every review of Come Feel Me Tremble doesn't notice his cover of Jackson Browne's (!) "These Days," with its final verse in which the narrator begs, "Don't confront me with my failures/I had not forgotten them." He knows what the audience wants--more of the same, please--and wants to give it, but where does it get him? Stuck in a Minneapolis basement, chasing ghosts he'd rather move out of the house altogether. Maybe that's why he barely tours. "Unsatisfied?" You bet.
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Come Feel Me Tremble and Dead Man Shake will remind Replacements fans of what they loved about that band; they're loose like rotting teeth, this far from falling out and coming apart. The Tremble DVD, so boring just watching it is like taking an 88-minute nap, is worth owning for the old faves that show up here and there: "Valentine," a half-assed "Unsatisfied," "Left of the Dial," "Alex Chilton" and "Can't Hardly Wait," the latter performed while surrounded by the weeping cult. The new discs aren't as dopey as his first two solo records, not as mopey as the third, merely the sound of a man in his home studio hitting "record" while he tries to make every other line rhyme (by his own admission, on the Tremble DVD). He's already promoting the next record, the acoustic Folker coming next year; it's the one he's proud of, he says, not these time-killers and space-fillers. Love the new records for what they are, the sound of a sober man who just seems drunk, but don't pretend they're something more. "Whatever happened to Paul?" he wonders on Shake's "O.D. Blues." The answer: "I dunno/He fell in with bad companions, he lived happily ever after." Time we let him, at that.