ROCK 'N' Roll has always enjoyed the liberating feeling of laughing in the face of good taste. From Screaming Jay Hawkins's stage entrances from a coffin to NRBQ's Cabbage Patch doll executions, rock acts have often enjoyed a good joke at the expense of conventional sentiments. Nonetheless, rock performers who rely too heavily on joking irreverence run the risk of becoming frivolous jokes themselves.
The Replacements from Minneapolis are a prime example of a band that made its first reputation with its cackling contempt for usual show-biz standards. This band, though, found passions they could believe in and went on to make two of the best albums of the '80s: 1985's "Tim" and 1987's "Pleased to Meet Me." Frank Zappa, by contrast, never made that transition. It remains to be seen if younger performers like Mojo Nixo, the Dead Milkmen and Billy Wirtz can make the stretch.
The Replacements "All Shook Down" (Sire/Reprise). Last year the Replacements gave us both the weakest album and best live shows of their career. This year they give us an album that is, for all intents and purposes, a Paul Westerberg solo album. Replacing his bandmates at will with outside musicians, the Replacements' singer-songwriter fashions a bleak, stripped-down look at a man discovering his own limits. Having discovered that he can't live as if there's no tomorrow -- because, in fact, there is -- Westerberg confronts that tomorrow, and all the yesterdays that lead up to it. Left behind is the going-for-broke abandon of the old days; in its place are acoustic confessionals and sour observations tied to catchy rock guitar riffs. It's quite a shift, but it catalyzes some of the most honest songwriting of the year.
Mojo Nixon "Otis" (Enigma). This is Nixon's most musical album yet; he replaced duo partner Skid Roper with a real band that includes John Doe of X, Country Dick Montana of the Beat Farmers and Bill Davis of Dash Rip Rock, and ex-Replacements' producer Jim Dickinson is at the board. The songwriting is inconsistent, but when it clicks (as on the James-Brown-meets-Dan-Quayle saga of "Put a Sex Mo-Sheen in the White House") it's rock 'n' roll bad taste at its best. It works because Nixon pushes his material far beyond any rational limits; he doesn't merely defend giant tires and chili dogs; he hails them as the highest fruits of civilization. He doesn't merely mock pompous figures like lawyers and Don Henley; he starts ranting and raving that they should die. Nixon performs Monday and Tuesday with the Dead Milkmen and Cavedogs at the 9:30 club.
NRBQ "Peek-a-Boo: The Best of NRBQ, 1969-1989" (Rhino). No rock band has balanced taste-flouting humor and heartfelt music better and longer than NRBQ. This eccentric quartet may have a fanatic following among fellow musicians, critics and their devoted cult, but the band has never sold many records. As a result, they keep switching labels, who often allow their old releases to go out of print. Now Rhino has collected 35 tracks from NRBQ's Columbia, Kama Sutra, Rounder, Red Rooster, Mercury, A&M, Bearsville and Virgin albums into one well-chosen anthology. There are no unreleased surprises (just a few remixes and alternate takes), but included are the perennial highlights of the band's live show plus the originals that have been covered by Bonnie Raitt, Dave Edmunds and the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Now, at last, you can hear "Flat Foot Flewsy" and "I Love Her, She Loves Me" on compact disc.
Reverend Billy C. Wirtz "Baskslider's Tractor Pull" (Hightone). Wirtz, a minister in the church of "Polyester Worship," presents his new album as if it were a live evangelical revival service (and tractor pull) in Chromosome, North Carolina. Wirtz not only sings and bangs on the piano, but he also does a lot of preaching and emceeing. Backed by the Kingsnake Studio band (plus the P-Funk horns on "Rev It Up"), the music is solid, but the writing is weak. Wirtz traffics in the broadest Southern stereotypes (TV preachers, diner waitresses, truck drivers and honky-tonk angels) and relies on arbitrary juxtapositions for his punchlines ("Erik the Red Sovine" and "Mennonite Surf Party"). This is the kind of comedy album that's mildly amusing the first time around but doesn't bear repeated listenings.