Tribute albums often fall somewhere between what fans expect, and whether the artist warrants the immortality, but happily, that's not so here. Every detail has been overseen with loving care, from the takeoff on the Replacements' Hootenanny cover to the inclusion of a hidden track, "The Ballad of the Opening Band," Slim Dunlap's mordant look at the supporting act's lot.
So What was the brainchild of Jim Archuleta and Rob Gaines, two musicians and engineers from Austin, Texas (who bill themselves as "The Dis Twins" and contribute a feverish "Answering Machine"). The pair recorded their bands at Austin's Electric Lounge, with an emphasis on songs that featured the Replacements' late, beloved guitarist Bob Stinson. The concept is as simple as Stinson's celebrated maxim ("Close your eyes and floor it!").
Naturally, if the band couldn't play it straight, neither should a tribute album honoring them. So What's best moments are unexpected, such as the Asylum Street Spankers' "Treatment Bound" (as a '20-era jig); the Gourds' dirgey, accordion-led "My Favorite Thing"; or Fastball's uptempo "Androgynous" (which Westerberg recorded alone at the piano for Hootenanny). Other songs gain from unique contexts.
Hearing a female vocalist tackle "Kiss Me on the Bus" gives added resonance to Paul Westerberg's lyric of unfulfilled sexual yearning. Buick MacKane's country-trash demolition of "I Hate Music" is equally inspired, but has a key lyric ("it's got too many notes") that sounds very powerful in the right hands. What's equally surprising is how many bands play the songs straight. Paul Minor's "Left of the Dial" keeps the original version's clack-clacking drumsticks between verses; Pork don't jettison the off-key jangly intro that made "Bastards of Young" burn; and Beaver Nelson's "Can't Hardly Wait" uses the uptempo live raveup as its blueprint (not Pleased to Meet Me's string-laden model). So What succeeds as an appreciation of Westerberg's writing, and a tribute album worth hearing from start to finish.