The Disarming Charm of ‘Rockin’ Here Tonight,’ Another 2013 Favorite

rockinheretonightI’ve been thinking a lot about the songwriting of Slim Dunlap vs the songwriting of Paul Westerberg over the past month since the release of Rockin’ Here Tonight, the compilation to benefit the replacement Replacement.

This could probably go without saying, but just in case, here goes: Paul Westerberg is, thus far, my favorite songwriter of all time. His lyrics click inside of me the way no others have. In the immortal words of Neko Case he is the one who is most often, “singing my life back to me.”

Okay, that was corny. Sometimes honesty is corny.

Now speaking of honesty (in the business we call that a shitty transition), that’s what has always drawn me to Westerberg’s songs. They’re so emotionally honest sometimes it hurts. Yet that honesty is almost always softened by cynicism or cleverness. It’s like he pulls you in right next to his heart for like a beat, and then pushes you right back to arm’s length again. That humor, that clever wordplay, it’s a defense mechanism. Sounds like someone else I know.

Since I’m often drawn to irony and sarcasm and cleverness, I often have a hard time with earnestness. It disarms me. I keep looking for the joke, the bit, the what gives. However as our culture grows ever mired in the snark and smarm (sorry, I couldn’t resist) of our time, I find myself growing ever charmed by genuine earnestness.

Slim Dunlap’s songs reek of earnestness, something I hadn’t really noticed until the benefit compilation came out. Maybe I needed to hear the songs in different voices, or maybe when I heard them the first time I wasn’t open to this sort of straight-forwardness. Chances are I was too cool to deal with the simple sincerity, but damn, does it sound good to my ears now.

There is so much to love in Rockin’ Here Tonight: the cause of helping Slim recover from his stroke, the joy of so many talented people lending their voices to that cause, Slim’s fun and earnest songs, the delight of hearing songs you thought you knew in a whole different light, the way Patterson Hood says “We’re awful sorry Slim’s been feeling bad. Sure hope he gets to feeling better soon. Thank you for your beautiful songs;” how my friend Wolfdogg said “with this lineup they should have called it “Songs for Wolfdog,” and Chan Polling’s hotcha cha cha cover of “Chrome Lipstick.” The list could be endless, and I didn’t even mention Jeff Tweedy or Craig Finn or most of The Jayhawks.

But the real reason Rockin’ Here Tonight makes my Best of 2013 list, is that it makes me happy. It makes me ridiculously, over the moon, goofy-grinned happy, not just because the music good and fun, but because it reminds me of the ‘Mats reunion, getting to see them, Chicago, and how powerful it can be when people come together to do something good. I’m sorry that Slim suffered a stroke, but I’m also pretty stoked that it took helping their friend to get Tommy & Paul back on stage. That right there is reason enough to love this one.

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