First as his rock 'n' roll alter ego Grandpaboy and then under his own name, Paul Westerberg has reemerged with the first two of three albums he hopes to release by winter's end. Buy only one of them. While Grandpaboy offers up a hurried mess of rehearsals disguised as blues, Westerberg -- rock's greatest "Coulda been a contender" figure -- proves he still has a few tricks up his sleeve with Tremble.
Dead Man Shake is surprisingly bold -- it took balls to release this disappointing collection of rambles. The sound causes one to wonder if Westerberg locked himself away in his basement for the last year and a half and listened only to jump blues by the likes of Louis Jordan. But unlike Jordan's, this music is thin: a sloppy trap kit, stumbling bass lines, reverb-drenched guitar riffs, touches of harmonica, and Paul's endearingly scratchy, nasal whine. Sloppy is probably the point, but it ain't sloppy in a gutsy rock 'n' roll swagger kind of way. It's sloppy because it sounds like these were midnight recordings made in a drunken stupor for shits and giggles. At least the sleeper brilliance of the Replacements' finale All Shook Down sounded as if he cared about the music.
Come Feel Me Tremble, released as a Westerberg album proper, thickens up the sound, suggesting that maybe Dead Man Shake was just hastily recorded rehearsals. From the rattling opening bar chords of "Dirty Diesel" to the reserved conclusion of "These Days," Tremble -- a companion to the recent Westerberg documentary of the same name -- shows Paul sharpening his form and tightening his rusty chops. The sly turns of phrase, the tragic third-person narratives, and the bluesy one-chord swaggers -- all familiar Westerberg traits -- come around. The dirty rock 'n' roll cabaret of "Knockin' 'Em Back" slinks and slides like nothing expected, and when Westerberg turns up his guitar amp on "Pine Box" and "Soldier of Fortune," he gives the finger to those of us who figured he left behind the Replacements' rock abandon long ago.