A few months ago I was invited to play a solo ukulele number at a local New Haven tribute to the great Minnesota cult-rock glorified bar band of the 1980s, The Replacements. The main event was a screening of Connecticut filmmaker Gorman Bechard’s documentary Color Me Obsessed, which features interviews with dozens of people who knew, worked with or obsessively followed The Replacements, but pointedly does not include any interviews with the band’s members, any footage of the band playing, and any recorded versions of their songs. The subtext of the film is how legends sometimes surpass reality.
For my one-song contribution to the live musical portion of the evening (which was anchored by a full-force non-uke rock band fronted by one of the film’s co-producers, Dean Falcone), I chose “Androgynous,” a frank and delightful song about personal choices and social perceptions which I rembered seemed quite daring and and progressive back in 1984, when the song was released as part of The Replacements’ Let It Be album. Of course, this is a band that, though swaggering and manly and drunken in manner, thought nothing of performing in drag.
I considered other songs, but “Androgynous” stuck out because it is the only one in the Replacements repertoire to be performed on solo piano. I thought the fact that its instrumentation stood out would translate nicely to a uke rendition. My intention, which I think I might have accomplished, was to keep “Androgynous” weird and angular and intimate. In any case, I included some funny strums and didn’t fuck up the chords.
In today’s mail came a new CD by Bright Little Field, a duo whose members are coincidentally surnamed Bright and Littlefield. The disk’s title: Treatment Bound: A Ukulele Tribute to The Replacements. This explanation appears on the album’s back cover:
This noise was created using only ukuleles, percussion, pots, pans and a rubber chicken. No guitars, basses or keyboards were harmed during the making of this recording.
Bright Little Field tackles an even dozen Replacements tunes. The album-opener is “We’re Comin’ Out,” which like “Androgynous” emanates from the album Let It Be. It’s a bouncy, friendly rendition, much less vicious than the original.
But the song selection isn’t that narrow, and the mood isn’t always so peppy. It’s as solid an overview of the Replacements oeuvre as you could hope for: one song from “Hootenanny, three from Let It Be, three from Tim, two from Pleased to Meet Me, two from Don’t Tell a Soul, plus “If Only You Were Lonely,” which was a B-side from the Replacements’ Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash era.
Yes, they do “Androgynous,” with some interesting harmonies and effects and a sweet solo. It sweeps past the grittiness I could so easily draw out of the song, but in some ways it’s a greater challenge to smooth the thing out. Likewise, Bright Littlefield turns “I’ll Be You” into something almost Beach Boys-ian in its spectral sweetness and cleancut crispness.
Some of the arrangements admittedly go too far in making the strident Replacements riffs palatable for the unassuming four-string. I do not share the belief of many open-mic performers that Replacements tunes work as folk songs. I think they are written for power chords and drunken yelps. But Bright Little Field is playing with so many styles and attitudes on this eclectic disk that there’ll be something for every listen to embrace, and to question, especially considering the level of devotion which Replacements fans feel for the hallowed band’s original recordings and infamously scrappy bootlegs.
Like another worthwhile alt-rock ukulele reinterpretation, Shawn Fogel’s recreation of Neutral Milk Hotel’s Aeroplane Over the Sea album with ukes (under the band name Neutral Uke Hotel), Bright Little Field’s Treatment Bound has found a suitable treatment for classic music which is so distinctive that it’s not often covered, and finds diverse and eclectic opportunities for those vivid new versions through the underrated and ever-surprising uke.