James Alex is one of those true believers stuck in a rock ‘n’ roll past that never got better than the Replacements in 1985. He’s been an indie-rock mainstay for decades out of Pennsylvania, most recently with Beach Slang, a band that doubles down on Alex’s obsessions rather than striving for anything like innovation. Earnest, wide-eyed and bow-tied, Alex lives in a Saturday-night world filled with boisterous guitars and dreams that refuse to age out gracefully.
Alex’s world can be a wonderful place to visit — what rock ‘n’ roll fan doesn’t love the Replacements? But one also roots for any well-intentioned artist to find his own voice in the recording studio, and Alex isn’t there yet.
On Beach Slang’s “The Deadbeat Bang of Heartbreak City” (Bridge Nine Records), Alex grabs another nostalgia fix by bringing in an original member of the Replacements — Tommy Stinson — to play bass and presumably to sign off on some of the more blatant nods to classic Replacements songs. It all comes together in “Tommy in the ’80s,” which isn’t about Stinson but about another Replacements-era power-pop contemporary, the late Tommy Keene. To add to the ’80s vibe, the track repurposes the riff from Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl.” It’s bright, blaring and heart-felt if nothing else, a near-perfect distillation of everything Alex cherishes about his heroes.
The more polished production, including a mix by former Chicagoan Brad Wood, brings the band out of the garage and into the arena, at least sonically. As a result, some of the shaggy verve of old has been sacrificed, and the latter half of the album lacks the emotional specificity of Alex’s best work. A few quieter acoustic tracks, augmented by understated strings and horns, echo the singer’s work in his alter-ego project, Quiet Slang, and provide some welcome textural variety. The segue from the contemplative “Nobody Say Nothing” into “Nowhere Bus” resonates more loudly than just about anything else on the album.
Otherwise, there is a sense that Alex is stuck in a still-vivid past, each song reaching back but not quite able to grasp the memory of what it felt like to be a young Replacements fan. As he sings on “Let it Ride”: “Rock and roll is my favorite sin/ Man, I don’t know if I’m good at it / but I’m too in love or dumb to quit.”
— Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune