For a while there, Tommy Stinson was just about the coolest thing going. Of course that was about 15 to 20 years ago when he was the impossibly young bassist for the most beloved American underground band around. Though he didn’t write much of the music, that was okay because the Replacements were almost as famous for their hard partying lifestyle as they were for their garage/blues/pop/punk anthems, and Tommy did more than his share. I remember repeating the story (possibly apocryphal, possibly not) of Paul Westerberg and Tommy refusing to learn how to drive for fear the newfound responsibility might present a interference to their drinking (and whatever else they were getting up to). What a trooper, I thought. This guy has got his priorities straight, that’s for sure.
Well that was a long time ago. The Replacements are long gone, undone by the booze, the egos, and a drying well of creativity. The subsequent careers of all involved would seem to bear that out, with Tommy’s band Bash & Pop taking an unsatisfying stab at Replacements-like barroom swagger, and Paul’s floundering solo efforts, none of which have yet to find their way back to the greatness of old. In the wreckage of what had been, it almost seemed as though the ex-Replacement who fared best was drummer Chris Mars, who released a string of surprisingly good records, all of which were marred however by his atrocious vocals. As for Tommy, he seemed to be inching towards whatever-happened-to status when he reappeared, bizarrely, as the bass player for the reformed, too-surreal-to last Guns N’ Roses, who all but imploded during their disastrous performance at the 2002 MTV video awards. I was thankful for Tommy drawing a paycheck helping to prop up Axl’s corpse, but if it meant even one more airing of “November Rain”, then I felt he owed at least a generous portion of it to charity.
2004 may provide Tommy with his best chance at a higher profile in a while with the reissue of his aborted mid-90s record with the band Perfect and now Village Gorilla Head, his first solo album, in name anyway. It’s not a far cry from what’s come before, but it is an improvement. There are still healthy dollops of old-school rock like the Stones and the Faces in his music, and it’s odd how quaint it sounds. For all their legendary stature and untouchable cool, not a lot of bands today take major cues from the Stones anymore (less so the Faces). Even those who reach back to the blues for inspiration, like the White Stripes or the Black Keys, seem to have largely skipped over that branch of the rock-and-roll tree. But Tommy Stinson has a traditionalist streak in him, and though that makes Village Gorilla Head unlikely to resonate with the kids too much, old heads might find a lot to like.
For anyone who enjoyed Ryan Adams’ Rock N Roll from last year (count me in), songs like “Not a Moment too Soon” and “Something’s Wrong” will satisfy in the same retro-fied way (though the latter’s verse is uncomfortably similar to Sheryl Crow). Even better is the bittersweet ballad “Hey You” where Tommy’s scratchy, worn voice begins to sound a bit like Bob Dylan, all the while thoroughly tempting me to wave a cigarette lighter in sympathetic solidarity. He rocks out with convincing bile on “Couldn’t Wait,” all pounding chords and flying spittle. I wouldn’t want to be the guy using the mic after him. His moodier, more textural experiment on the title song isn’t bad either, though the tune itself isn’t really much. But he’s best on the more stylistically familiar material, with an emotional honesty that rings true and carries him even when the songs spin their wheels.
Hopefully Tommy Stinson can keep a steadier recording schedule if he has it in him. I hate to think of him toiling away in some hideously overpriced studio trying to spin Axl’s shit into gold when he could be doing his own thing, improving upon it even further. He’s paid his dues and he’s still got fire in his belly, so fuck Chinese Democracy, and give us some more American rock n’ roll.