Of course, after the collapse, crash and burn of The Replacements in 1991, it was almost instantly hoped that somebody in the band would begin producing more music but nobody looked at Slim Dunlap to be the first one out of the gate. Dunlap was, after all, the replacement guitarist in The Replacements – that was the joke at the time, anyway – so while people assumed he’d probably make more music, most fans just figured that it would fly under the radar of the public at large and be the private pleasure of a small, devoted base.
That proved to be true when Dunlap’s first solo LP (The New Old Me) came out in 1993, and the impression endured when the guitarist’s sophomore release (Times Like This) arrived in 1996 but, happily, the albums have proven not to be lost to the sands of time. In 2015, with a bit of remastering and retouching applied, New West Records saved Dunlap’s body of solo work from obscurity and put it back on racks for Record Store Day as a 2LP set which is great; it meant that, in the current musical climate (where fans of The Replacements’ music exist in much, much greater numbers than ever before), Dunlap finally had a chance to get his due and be recognized for his talent, instead of simply being a footnote at the end of another band’s story.
With the above praise on the record first, it then comes time to get down to the nitty gritty, and the truth about the two albums included in this set. The first thing this critic noticed about The New Old Me as I put it on my turntable, sunk a stylus into its A-side and began reading liner notes was that, in fact, Dunlap’s solo debut wasn’t just Dunlap’s first post-‘Mats work, it was also Paul Westerberg’s first work after The ‘Mats. Here, Westerberg supplied some backup vocals but, even more importantly, he co-wrote The New Old Me too – which means this album beat Westerberg’s 14 Songs to market as the first post-‘Mats work by any member of the band by a few months. For Replacements fans, that realization may rank as huge; with Westerberg co-writing, it could easily be argued that The New Old Me set the standard for everything that would follow it by Westerberg and by Tommy Stinson. Not only that, but it turns out that The New Old Me is a pretty decent little record to boot.
From the moment “Rockin’ Here Tonight” opens the A-side of The New Old Me, everything about this album – and really, about Slim Dunlap as both a person and a guitar player – is laid out crisply and cleanly for listeners; there’s pop, and there’s rock in it, and it blasts forth beautifully, without artifice. In that way, there is a timeless quality about it that is impossible to miss and, for just the sheer earnest desire to please which is so obviously within it, it can win hearts. It wants to win them the old fashioned way; with great, Stones-y guitar licks and melodies, and a heart that is untarnished by broken dreams or diminished expectations. And you know? It can – for those with the right heart.
After “Rockin’ Here Tonight” sets the tone that it does, the hits just keep on coming from the same vein as the album progresses. “Just For The Hell Of It” plays the rock, liquor and good times angle exemplified by The ‘Mats at their best and further develops Dunlap’s “devil may care” attitude with a better examination of the singer’s vocal rasp. Then he lifts the melody from “La Bamba” and puts it on a keyboard for the 100% fun and fluffy “Isn’t It” before revisiting the Glimmer Twins-era Stones (although more clearly realized with Westerberg’s help) for “Partners In Crime” and closing the side with what sounds like another lost ‘Mats classic, “Taken On The Chin.” No matter how often one listens to this first side of The New Old Me, the notion that this music was a dry run for what could have been a Replacements album on the right day remains perfectly unshakeable. In many ways, it’s perfect and every fan of The ‘Mats will happily say so – once they’ve heard it.
The ghosts of The Replacements and The Rolling Stones continue to haunt the B-side of The New Old Me, but are joined by an undeniable breath of Bob Dylan and Travelling Wilburys from the moment “From The ‘Git Go” kicks the going into gear. Again, Dunlap’s influences are unmistakable as the roadhouse-ready swing of “From The ‘Git Go” drives through, but listeners will easily find the charm of the styling without much effort at all. Everything about what listeners hear here is unmistakable and played with so much love in its’ heart that listeners will have no trouble falling for it too.
Unlike even the best Replacements album, the spell that Dunlap casts never falters or breaks as “From The ‘Git Go” gives way to “Busted Up” which, in turn, gives way to Ain’t Exactly Good” (which will make Replacements fans’ hearts melt with the back-handed “Ain’t half bad but ain’t exactly good” line), gets a little misty with the acoustic “Ballad of the Opening Band” and then closes up shop with one last “heartbroken, nothing really won” instrumental “Love Lost.” Some critic somewhere would certainly complain that the obvious comparisons which come with every single song on The New Old Me are just entirely too similar to The Replacements’ music and so lack any sense of the guitarist’s own personality, but they’d be wrong and trying to make such an argument just proves that they missed the point. Those who know what they’re hearing here know that this first album by Dunlap is an exposition of the guitarist’s heart and soul, and it’s beautiful.
Originally released three years after Dunlap’s debut, Times Like This comes instantly marked as more obviously confident (read: some would argue that it’s more focused than its predecessor), but that just means the songs are a little more muscular, a little tighter and a little rockier. In this case, the set does begin with a more ragged (but no less Replacements-esque) tone and disposition as “Ain’t No Fair (In A Rock N’ Roll Love Affair” and “Girlfriend” both blaze out brightly and show listeners just how much fun it can be to be lovelorn but also passionately disinterested in letting the girl know it too, and then taking the shit out of small town nowhere with the equally unavoidable “Hate This Town.” Just three songs in and Dunlap has already shown listeners that, while his debut album might indeed have shown listeners that the band’s replacement guitarist was a vital part of The Replacements’ creative process, he has a lot more to say on this outing (which, yes, features Paul Westerberg once again).
After “Ain’t No Fair” and “Girlfriend” set the tone, Dunlap bravely begins reaching in different directions both musically and lyrically (“Little Shiva’s Song” lightens up musically while getting more thematically heavy, and “Jungle Out There” gets darker than anyone might expect from anybody who used to be in The Replacements) and then ends on a perfectly sweet, perfectly throwaway note with the side-closer, “Cozy.” On one hand, the results expressed by Dunlap’s growth here are remarkable; even when the volume’s not turned up, Slim Dunlap expresses a depth and power here which is totally unexpected, and plays it coy enough to leave listeners aching for more as the side closes. True, the power’s turned up here and the songs are a blast, but the welcome is far from worn out and will see listeners waiting expectantly as soon as they’ve flipped the record over for a second helping.
…And, for its part, the album’s B-side gives up a few more succulent slabs of precisely what listeners were hoping for, but this time the focus is more on wordplay than it is on just rocking out. Throughout songs like “Cooler Then,” “Nowhere’s Near” and the coy “I’m not going to give you just what you want” anthem “Radio Hook Word Hit,” there’s a sense of good-hearted surliness in both Dunlap’s vocal tone and guitar attack which just beams out the notion that Dunlap is absolutely capable of more than what he’s showing here, but is dutifully splitting the difference between what he wants to do and what he perceives to be what audiences want from him. It’s great fun and features more than a few fine moments but, as the B-side closes with the album’s title track, there’s no question that listeners are already baited for more which is a little bittersweet now, but at least listeners get a really healthy helping of music to enjoy – even if none of it is new and the chance of new music ever coming again is pretty remote.
Stepping back from this 2LP reissue after having run front-to-back with the whole thing (and, rest assured, you will do that, reader), the inherent value of it is absolutely fantastic and that fact is easy to realize. With this, listeners get everything Slim Dunlap did on his own after his turn in The Replacements, and it really does show (first) how much he added to the band and (second) how much he both informed and inspired the group and its members after the fact. This reissue is a real gift and now, New West Records has just made available a recently discovered clutch of copies – so readers are urged to get theirs while they last!
(New West Records)