The Over/Under: Paul Westerberg

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Apart from a joint interview with Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong in Spin and commenting on the loss of his hero, Alex Chilton, in The New York Times, deservedly legendary singer/songwriter Paul Westerberg has been keeping a pretty low profile. So, what better time to subject his post-Replacements catalog to everyone’s “favorite” MAGNET feature? Now remember, this is just one guy’s opinion, a guy who loves the Replacements and Westerberg as much as anyone. (Well, maybe not as much as a few Westernerds; you know who you are.) While my fondness for Westerberg’s post-Replacements output has faded somewhat, he’s still my default answer when anyone asks whom I consider my favorite songwriter of all-time. Commenters were generally kind when I did the Replacements Over/Under, especially compared to the poor saps who dared to critique Guided By Voices and Ween. Be that as it may, here’s another reminder: The songs on the overrated list aren’t necessarily genuinely overrated by fans or by the general public, nor are they necessarily bad. And the underrated ones aren’t always obscure. The entire thing is just an editorial exercise on a webpage; feel free to chime in with your picks or chide me in the comments. Read a lot more about the Replacements, Hüsker Dü and the ’80s Minneapolis scene in our extensive 2005 cover story. Also read our 2002 cover story on Westerberg and novelist George Pelecanos’ ode to the Replacements.

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The Over/Under: The Stooges

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Even a jaded old music hack hopes to move people occasionally. The record-setting outpouring of, er, emotion occasioned by our Ween Over/Under, when some members of the Ween forum came to hang out for a while, was a striking thing to behold. After a few dozen postings, the comment thread began predictably to devolve like a game of Telephone, until some of the poor befuddled dears were lambasting me—or a previous commenter or, at any rate, somebody somewhere—for dismissing Ween as a “joke band.” I’d argued exactly the opposite, but never mind; watching the train wreck was sort of fun. And now that we’ve aired out the joint and flipped the mattresses, the office is pretty much back to normal, except one of the interns got a tummyache from all the bad swears, and we’re still finding misplaced modifiers between the couch cushions. But since it’s just us again, and since we’re already talking about bands with active senses of humor (as opposed to some among their fans), let’s consider Michigan’s mighty Stooges. And let’s put it clearly: The Stooges represent one of rock history’s benchmarks. To call most any Stooges cut “overrated” requires the sheerest splitting of hairs, since the brilliant canonical albums number only three, with 2007’s The Weirdness serving mostly as a grace note. And the Stooges were utterly sui generis; though they drew openly from garage rock, electric blues and free jazz (and guerilla theater, come to think of it), the band wasn’t easy to pin, then or now. The sequential development heard on The Stooges, Funhouse and Raw Power has been quite accurately called the bridge between ’60s garage and ’70s punk. But the band’s real greatness, I think, lay in its open baiting and challenging of the audience. Cool cats like the Velvets, Bob Dylan and Miles Davis could play entire sets without even acknowledging the crowd, but no band before the Stooges had ever taken such obvious delight in overtly challenging, even openly antagonizing, the people who’d come to hear them play. (“I won’t fuck you when I’m workin’,” Iggy Pop famously snarled to one persistent heckler.) That seems to me the sea change—the moment when flower power died and your-pretty-face-is-going-to-hell sneering took over. I’ll go further and say that the Stooges were the first post-Manson rock band. Part of me can’t believe I just wrote that, but I’m standing by it. So this list is going to feel more subjective than most, and the criteria might be a little inconsistent from entry to entry, but I don’t think Pop and Co. would mind. No messier glory ever crawled across a rock ‘n’ roll stage beneath a shower of eggs and bottles.

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The Over/Under: Ween

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Even as teenagers spazzing around in their suburban Philadelphia homes, Dean Ween (Mickey Melchiondo) and Gene Ween (Aaron Freeman) offered a giddily irresponsible, snot-fueled antidote to the tiresome PC earnestness that characterized popular music throughout the 1990s. Ween began in the mid-’80s as a lo-fi bedroom act, producing a handful of unhinged four-track cassette releases and rapidly moved up the indie-label chain—first Twin/Tone, then Shimmy-Disc—to land an inexplicable major-label contract with Elektra for the group’s third “official” album, 1992’s remarkable Pure Guava. Since then, on both label-attached records and a dizzying stream of self-released recordings, Ween has delighted in nothing more than vivisecting pop music forms and twisting them into new shapes—or pushing them far beyond their logical endpoints. In addition to their astonishing talent for mimicry and parody, however, Freeman and Melchiondo are also (and this is a point that’s rarely been made with sufficient emphasis) musicians—and students of pop music—of the very first order. Anyone who’s heard the group tackle note-perfect readings of ’70s sap rock with a straight face (such as Billy Joel’s “Honesty” or Wings’ “Band On The Run”) has to recognize that for all its smartass, for two decades Ween has been one of the smartest, most exceptionally gifted bands in rock. That may seem an odd claim to make about a group so energetically dedicated to absurdist goofing, but to sink into Ween’s catalog is to nuzzle the brown underbelly of pop-music history and hear what the top-40 hit parade might have sounded like after a steady diet of whippets, Ballantine’s scotch and carry-out chimichangas. On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of debut GodWeenSatan: The Oneness, here’s our take on the most overrated and underrated songs in Ween’s catalog. Hail the Boognish, mang.

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The Over/Under: Nirvana

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It was less than three years between the release of Nevermind and Kurt Cobain’s suicide. In that short span of time, Nirvana managed to become one of the most popular and important alternative bands in the world, and after Cobain’s death, praise for the band was used as a salve by critics to heal the pain and signify the loss. But maybe a new rule should be made: No legacy assertions about a recently departed musician until that legacy has at least had a chance to show some signs of being real. If you just went by the “rock history books,” you’d think it was Nirvana that awakened the mainstream to alternative music, that radio today was ruled by Nirvana copycat bands and that Cobain was actually the spokesperson for a generation. But none of that’s true. We’ve had alternative bands crossing over into the mainstream pretty much constantly since the Beatles. Corporate radio has been more influenced by Pearl Jam than anyone else in the years since, and Pavement’s Slanted And Enchanted (released six months later) sold about 100th of what Nevermind did and probably had a greater impact on indie/alternative music than anything Nirvana ever recorded. With a straight face, Nirvana was called the most influential musical group since the Beatles, but will anyone make that assertion in 2010? The whole notion of Nirvana bringing anything to the mainstream or being innovative in any way is simply false: a result of the blind beatification of the shocked and grieving. People were aware of punk rock, even if they weren’t seeing it on MTV all the time. But that’s OK. Cobain himself admitted his band was nothing new and was always quick to promote the groups that influenced him. You certainly can’t hold it against him. I think he would have laughed at the thought of being Guitar World magazine’s “guitarist of the ’90s.” Nirvana was an extremely talented group, one of my favorites, certainly, but as it stands now, Cobain and Co. were an anomaly and never should have been in the running for World’s Biggest Band. (Which in 1994, you could probably argue, it was.) At this point, it’s tempting to lump Nirvana’s entire catalog into the overrated category, but obviously we can’t do that. Besides, with the massive popularity of only a handful of the band’s singles, there are some truly great tracks that fell by the wayside. Here are Nirvana’s five most overrated and five most underrated songs.

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The Over/Under: Tom Waits

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Let’s just assume that the very notion of a Tom Waits Over/Under is going to split us into two camps: those who’ll be affronted that we’d even consider calling any Waits cut overrated, and those who think the whole of Waits’ career describes an overly hyped trajectory of avant-garde noodling. And, oh yeah, his fans are tiresome sycophants. Let’s accept that and skip the usual self-justifying intro. Just so you know where this particular writer falls, though, be advised that musically speaking, Waits’ 1983 giant step, Swordfishtrombones, changed my life, and that’s no exaggeration. As with most unregenerate Waits fans, my first exposure to his music felt like a smack on the side of the head. I’d been seeking out strange sounds for most of my young life to that point, but I hadn’t heard anything like Waits’ game-changing mission statement for where his muse was about to take him—away from the barrelhouse-piano-player/dive-bar-poet persona (which had become shtick by the early ’80s) and deep into much stranger, sterner territory, the clangorous midnight cabaret where he’s set up shop for almost 30 years now. And it changed my listening habits, too—led me down exploratory paths I might not have been curious about if I hadn’t heard Swordfishtrombones at age 15. (An older cousin slipped the album to me. My mom, a stone Connie Francis fan, never forgave him.) The guy’s a warhorse, a legend, an icon by now. That’s inarguable. And yet, lest we fashion Waits into post-rock’s sacred cow or divine mule or whatever, let’s slip under the fence and into the old fella’s junkyard and examine the trash and treasure there to be found.

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