Tommy Stinson is a legend. His work with The Replacements provided the heart of the Minneapolis punk scene in the early 80s, and by the end of the decade, the band’s more melodic sounds had paved the way for varying styles of alternative rock. With his other often overlooked bands Bash & Pop and Perfect, he took the Replacements’ sound even further, dabbling with power pop and even rootsier sounds. With that in mind, although this release from his Cowboys In The Campfire is billed as a “country album”, it’s best bits aren’t quite as massive a musical shift as some people might believe.
Packing ten songs into half an hour, ‘Wronger’ certainly doesn’t hang about. Obviously, its old fashioned, vinyl friendly playing time is perfect for something with such a retro core. For the Replacements buff, an instant love should be found with ‘Dream’, since there’s something about its semi-sloppy approach that is reminiscent of ‘Waitress In The Sky’, despite having its feet in a different genre. A tune where intricate acoustic work underscores a lax vocal and heavy, simple beat. Stinson’s slightly drawled voice and the slow stomp of an Americana tune is timeless, but for those familiar with Tommy’s past, the approach and the voice will be unmistakable. There’s a lot to love here: the crying guitar in the rear is almost as captivating as Stinson’s own vocal, in that it really highlights the live sound of the recording, and a heavy drum contrasts well with the empty bar room feel. Overall, this could’ve been a ’Mats b-side in an alternate universe, or something Tommy could’ve jammed out during his tenure with Soul Asylum. More roots rock than straight up country, it’s certainly one of the Cowboys’ finest tunes.
The album’s real highlight, however, doesn’t rely on anything remotely like The Replacements stock (save for perhaps a deep album cut or two from Tommy’s mate Paul Westerberg). ‘Karma’s Bitch’ ventures further into acoustic territory, and although it’s more of a country song, it has a welcoming folk-ish strum that makes it sound like something inspired by Neil Young circa ‘Silver & Gold’. The mix of sharp, classic sounding acoustic lines, crying steel guitars and narrative is perfect. Although Stinson is recounting a sad tale of a girl who drank herself to death, the natural warmth in the arrangement fools the listener into thinking they’re experiencing something rather lovely, and as the stripped down band embarks further into a landscape where clean guitars mesh with crying leads, this has all the makings of an Americana classic.
The heavy acoustic vibes of ‘Hey Man’ should work just as well, especially when some stately sounding guitar work is augmented by piano and strings for more of an emotive sound. Unfortunately – and this’ll be no surprise to most – Stinson just doesn’t have the vocal chops to pull off the kind of beauty such a tune deserved. His Dylan-ish whine spends most of the number battling bravely against the music, sticking out in the worst possible way. It’s a misstep, for sure, and although some tracks on this album undoubtedly work better than others, such huge misjudgements are rare, even with the stripped down nature of the recording making any flaws all the more obvious. A little more country, ‘Mr. Wrong’ is fuelled by rattling guitar lines that aren’t so different from bits of Stinson’s past, but a solid two-step bassline roots everything into more of an old country mood. That’ll make it more of an acquired taste than some of the material, but for those with a more forgiving ear might glean listening enjoyment from a massively twangy lead guitar which takes centre stage on a drum free workout, whilst Tommy’s natural vocal lends an important familiarity.
In terms of country, ‘We Ain’t’ is much better, since there’s a genuine feel of classic Johnny Cash coming through via some of the guitar work, and even though a couple of the musical bridges sound more like Stinson meeting Soul Asylum – very much giving away the past of the featured performer – there’s a genuine love of roots music and Americana here that makes it work on its own merits. Really going for it, ‘That’s It’ takes a sidestep into rockabilly and fills a little under two minutes with a strong, rattling bassline and a smashed snare drum. It sounds like an entirely different band in comparison to ‘Karma’s Bitch’ – more akin to an early Johnny Cash & The Tennessee Two jam rammed carelessly through a Stray Cats filter. It’s hardly essential, but it’s the kind of knockabout fun that would sound great live, and at the other end of the scale, the ukulele and brass filled ‘Here We Go’ features Tommy and his Campfire partner in crime Chip Roberts on an uneven sounding track that latches onto a simple groove, but often sounds as if it wants to reach for something far grander. The featured brass could’ve been pulled from a contemporary soul recording and sounds superb, despite sounding like a complete mismatch for the easy rhythm. It shouldn’t work, and a couple of really wobbly vocals try their damnedest to make it not work, but somehow the Cowboys’ easy cool – or, perhaps, general belligerence – manages to make it hang together. It’s definitely one of those tracks that takes a little longer to appreciate, but it shows why this project shouldn’t just be pigeonholed as a country experiment.
Another percussion free country tune – and one that is a little less afraid to share its old school heart – ‘Fall Apart Together’ features a great blend of acoustic and electric guitar throughout. The acoustic sets up a solid rhythm, but occasionally drifts into softer and more intricate sounds, and the countermelodies from a reverbed electric punch through with a huge, twangy sound. Stinson uses a typically natural vocal to hold everything together, and his chosen tones certainly make this sound like a Replacements deep cut in the Americana mould, but that’ll be enough for it to be another favourite track for most listeners.
This is good. It would be a stretch to call it great, but for Stinson’s army of loyal fans, there’s enough gold within its half hour to make ‘Wronger’ a decent collection filler. For the committed ’Mats lover or anyone well versed in Jay Farrar’s solo works, ‘Karma’s Bitch’ ,‘Dream’, and ‘We Ain’t’ will make it worth the price of admission. Since the majority the rest of the material starts to make a more positive impression later, this side project has certainly been worthwhile. Classic or not, Tommy certainly sounds like he had fun taking this musical detour, and at this point in his career, that’s probably just as important as trying to reach a mass audience. Perhaps even more important.
Further reading: Tommy Stinson with Bash & Pop – Live At Ramsgate Music Hall