Most rock critics worth their five-cents-per-word would love to give a new Paul Westerberg disc proper inspection, no matter the consistent mediocrity of recent discs. Such is the still-strong emotional pull of Westerberg's beloved '80s band, the Replacements. But even diehard fans have felt a coasting of late. After the futile major-label attempts to clean up Westerberg's sound, emo stronghold Vagrant Records has stepped in to allow him to get a little messy again. And his releases for the label have shown a bit more lo-fi scruffiness.
Folker takes that intimate tone and sharpens it -- the tossed-off between-song bits of Mono now fade in and out smoothly and are labeled "interludes." But the songwriting as a whole feels tossed-off too. The disc opens with a sarcastic bubblegum parody ("Jingle") and wraps near the end with a music-biz survival story ("New Life"); both contain more emotional heft than they ought, given they're moldy topics for Westerberg. "Gun Shy," "Looking Up in Heaven," and "As Far as I Know" have some of the word-twist and riff-pep of the jangly pop he's run on since the last Replacements CD. And he can still get deeply sad ("23 Years Ago" -- which is exactly when the Replacements started). Otherwise, the lateral moves of Westerberg's career have ensured the constant comparisons to the 'Mats' catalog. But what a catalog! See, there we go giving proper inspection.