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Paul Westerberg - Stereo/Mono (Vagrant Records)

If while listening to Stereo/Mono, Paul Westerberg's latest double-disc effort, you think you hear flubbed lines, flat notes, room noise, or tape that runs out mid-verse, that's because you do. "This is rock 'n' roll recorded poorly, played in a hurry, with sweaty hands and unsure reason… This is my blood," Westerberg writes in the liner notes shrugging off the album's imperfections. Embattled punk spirit still intact and sequestered in his basement studio, he let the tape roll, played what felt right, and cut the bulk of Stereo/Mono live, in one take.

The Replacements, known for their drunken bravado and unpredictable live appearances, split in the early 90s; Westerberg went out on his own releasing three solo albums along the way to underwhelming critical acclaim - an icon scrutinized against the backdrop of his own mythology. Two labels later - Sire released his first two solo albums, 14 Songs and Eventually, Capitol released 1999's Suicaine Gratification - Westerberg landed at alterna-teen indie Vagrant Records in January 2002, fleeing the major label where's-my-single sinkhole with a collection of songs recorded during the same two year period, but strikingly different in every way. He emerged with two albums: Stereo, largely a collection of sparse, soul-baring ballads; Mono, recorded by Westerberg's rock 'n' roll doppelganger/split-personality, Grandpa Boy, a swashbuckling throwback to Tim-era Replacements.

In a world without heartbreak, loneliness, or deceit, Paul Westerberg would be out of a job. Luckily for him (and for us), the world is as painful and baffling as ever and Westerberg has no shortage of material to draw from. On Stereo, he rises to meet the past with a shrug and a grin, a kind of late-night clarity that makes otherwise bitter recollections bittersweet. "The only lie worth telling," he sings on the track by the same title, "is I'm in love with you."

Sardonic wit sharp as ever, he delivers songs like "Let the Bad Times Roll," and "Nothing to No one," as if he's looking through the rearview at a pile-up. For the most part, Stereo is somber and low-key, sparing with instrumentation and light on percussion, but Westerberg picks the right moments to pick up the pace ( "No Place For You" and "Mr. Rabbit") giving any bridge-jumpers a brief respite to reconsider. The album's closer, a careening, garage-rock version of "Postcards from Paradise," a Flesh For Lu Lu cover, pulls together a collection of songs relentlessly catchy and persistently memorable.

Where Paul Westerberg ends and Grandpa Boy begins could best be answered by Grandpa Boy himself, but he won't, he'd sooner tell you to fuck off. The simple answer: Grandpa Boy is the ornery, carousing, beer-for-breakfast persona of an aging rocker who has since traded the rock 'n' roll lifestyle for sobriety and fatherhood.

In a recent interview with Billboard, Westerberg admitted that Grandpa Boy has very little respect for recording technology; while recording Mono, he ran everything through an old Fender amp. And, as the title suggests, he chose to record in mono -- a one-dimensional wall of sound compared with the depth and perspective that stereo provides. In this case it worked very well, adding a youthful irreverence and character to a group of high-spirited rock numbers. "Silent Film Star," "Eyes Like Sparks," and "Between Love and Like" stand out on an album bursting at the seams with intensely likeable songs that show Westerberg, now 40, is still neck-deep in his prime.

After the Replacement's split, Westerberg became a bit of a shut-in, avoiding his fans and stonewalling hungry journalists angling to either canonize him as the second-coming of rock 'n' roll or paint him as yet another rock icon who sparked and fizzled. For a while it seemed as if music had become more work, less play. Within the confines of his basement studio, Westerberg rediscovered what initially made music his calling, not his profession. In doing so, he released two albums that stand independent of one another as some of his best work since the Replacements called it quits.

--Daniel Schulman

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