Friday, December 13, 2013

Magnolias - For Rent

In my lifetime, I called the offices of Twin/Tone records three times. Once to confirm if the stories I’d heard that the Replacements made off with the master tapes of their Twin/Tone records and thrown them into the Mississippi River (they had—kind of—it was only the copies of the master recordings and not the real thing that they nicked).

The other two times was to see if the second Magnolias album, For Rent, would ever be released on compact disc. On both of those discussions—about three years between each one—I was informed “yes” but never provided with a definitive date. Here it is, over twenty-years later, and still no hint of this Minneapolis landmark and virtually no recorded evidence that the band was on the verge of taking the Replacements’ crown of teenage ambivalence right off the top of their still-working head.

Some clarification is in order first. For many Replacements fans like me, the sound of the band adding horns (Pleased To Meet Me) and pursuing tamer arrangements (Don’t Tell A Soul) were troubling. While scouring the streets of “The Little Apple” during this same time period, one could find a plethora of decent—ahem—replacement bands that embodied not only the spirit of the town’s more notorious band, but even a few of the same chord progressions. No band managed to do this more effectively than The Magnolias.

It is true, and quite evident throughout For Rent, that head Magnolia John Freeman was nowhere in the same league as Paul Westerberg in terms of songwriting. What Freeman lacked as a wordsmith, he made up for in sheer intensity. His voice, at its most feral, matched Westerberg’s, albeit a tad more nasal and even less of a range. To be polite about it, Freeman would have trouble fronting any other band other than The Magnolias and God bless him for that limitation

The real similarities though are with the band, which channel the Mats’ Stink-era exuberance wonderfully at the same moment that their older brothers decided to forgo teenage angst and trade it in for adult compromise. The Replacements had a clear eye on mainstream acceptance while The Magnolias seemed to have their eyes trained on filling in the hole that our heroes left open.

To think that this would be an easy goal is shortsighted. The Replacements’ trick was letting everyone think they were just a bunch of young, drunk punks with little regard for the craft of rock and roll. The Magnolias not only had a good grasp of that craft, they made sure to get the guy closest to The Mats’ sound to capture their own version of it.

They hired the Replacements own soundman, Monty Wilkes, to record For Rent, and he did such an admirable job that you have to wonder why they didn’t put him in the captain’s chair for one of their own records. He captures every bit of Freeman and Tom Lischmann‘s crunching guitars on tape, but his real trick was how he put drummer Ron Anderson‘s snare in front of everything else in the mix. For twelve songs, Anderson sounds like he’s hammering a hole to China and even on the most tame of moments; Wilkes leaves the snare so high in the final product that you wonder if he used the Ron Popeil school of recording strategy: set it and forget it. The band never utilized Wilkes again and did not incorporate this kind of recording strategy in future recordings, which explains why none of their subsequent records ever managed to capture the kind of fury that’s audibly apparent in For Rent.

Time, the lack of availability, and tremendously low record sales (For Rent only managed to sell about 1,700 copies) don’t bode well for my argument that the Magnolias’ second full-length offering is an unheralded classic. Indeed, it would be easy to suggest that the proof lies in simply getting a copy of For Rent and judging for yourself, but even that is harder than it looks given that the title remains out of print.

The only thing I can do is try and get people talking about this wonderful record again, hopefully to the point where Twin/Tone will reconsider their stance against putting the band’s catalog on iTunes (or any other digital retailer) so that people can sample For Rent on their own. I’m confident that any fan of early Replacements and followers of the Twin Cities ’80s music scene will find more than enough reasons to revisit this forgotten gem.

This review originally appeared in Glorious Noise.

The title For Rent is available from iTunes.

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