Sometimes I listen to old Replacements records and wonder why I still listen to old Replacements records. Their Twin/Tone albums were loaded with Kiss riffs and Beatles rips, novelty songs and poignant ballads, country goofs and punk poses -- it's often hard to tell the trash from the treasure. Maybe the Replacements were great because they never tried to be, because their brand of rock and roll was so inadvertent. No one could try to write a song like "Unsatisfied." It just happens.
That's why the first disc of this two-CD set is expendable. It's an alleged best-of collection that chronicles the downfall of the Replacements in the post-Twin/Tone years, when Paul Westerberg began believing he alone was the band.
If part one (All for Nothing) reminds us where the Replacements went wrong, part two -- a collection of B-sides and live tracks and outtakes -- suggests where they went right. Let It Be, the quartet's last record before moving to Warner Bros., was its final start-to-finish triumph. Nothing for All is its accidental posthumous followup, a dustbin of purposeful gems and tossed-off wonders.
Nothing opens with a version of "Can't Hardly Wait" originally recorded for Tim; it's shorn of the gaudy, emasculating Memphis Horns producer Jim Dickinson would later bring in. The less the Mats did to a song, the more it seemed to matter. The rest of the disc is a patchwork masterpiece filled with the sort of nonsense ("Beer for Breakfast," "Till We're Nude," "All He Wants to Do Is Fish") and sappiness ("We Know the Night," "Portland," "Who Knows") that made Let It Be seem so fucked up and flawless. It's hard to believe there was a time when Westerberg so easily offset heartbreak and despair with a drunken giggle.
Nothing for All shows the band for what it was -- soused idiots who stumbled into a record deal and came this close to being something bigger. We adored them because they didn't give a shit; we began hating them when they did. If nothing else, All for Nothing, Nothing for All reminds us of why we cared and when we stopped caring.
Sometimes the most universal music comes from the most provincial places. I've never been there, but I imagine Leicester, England, to be a quaint university town in which choral groups battle a second-rate symphony for cultural supremacy. Though now based in London, Cornershop staggered onto the Leicester scene in 1993, a ragtag group of East Indians who adopted an English stereotype (the immigrant as bodega owner) for its proud, defiant name.
The band's 1995 release, Woman's Gotta Have It, was best at its most exotic, with Eastern melodies and beats played by sitars and tablas. The other half was fairly ordinary: indie guitar-rock with a little masala sprinkled over it. That makes When I Was Born for the 7th Time even more revelatory. The song that will be mentioned the most, a Punjabi version of the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood," is important as a reclamation of the band's Indian roots. But it isn't as thrilling as the CD's opening accordion flourish, which announces the arrival of a group unafraid to mix musical cultures, from the Cajun sounds of Louisiana and boho poetry of New York to the dance beats and hip-hop scratches of underground London.
Still, I'm partial to bassist/vocalist Tjinder Singh's more conventional pop structures, especially "Sleep on the Left Side" and "Brimful of Asha," which are the latest in a long, proud tradition of tunes about the power of good music. But even such slight, goofy dance shuffles as "Funky Days Are Back Again" and "Good Shit" are too amiable to be faulted much for their hippie-dippie lyrics. An experiment that could have ended disastrously -- Allen Ginsberg's poem "When the Light Appears Boy" spoken over the sound of the polyglot streets -- proves compelling. Singh's duet with Paula Fraser of Tarnation is less successful; it's just a conventional country song that happens to have flute in it.
The sitar on 7th Time isn't quite as prominent as it was on Woman's Gotta Have It, but the new CD's "It's Indian Tobacco My Friend," with its odd vocal modalities and high-hat splashes, is Western music as it could be conjured only by Easterners.
Not long ago in Louisiana, it was a cultural taboo for a woman to perform with a Creole or Cajun band. Fortunately, zydeco's no longer a bastion of chauvinism, and 26-year-old Rosie Ledet is now in charge of the family band earlier fronted by her bass-playing husband. On her third and best album so far, she works hard at whooping up dance-floor merriment with her griddle-hot accordion and sexy, forthright singing. "Roll It Over" and "My Joy Box" and many of the other ten tunes here, all written by Rosie, insistently affirm the pleasures of the flesh, with the bandleader riding the rhythmic flow of electric guitars, bass, drums, and washboards.