Former punk star turns ‘Folker’

Paul Westerberg could have hung up his guitar years ago and his place in the annals of rock history would have been secure.

Instead, the man who fronted The Replacements — renowned indie rockers of the 1980s — is still going strong. He's been flying solo since his highly influential band broke up in 1991, padding his legacy with one critically-acclaimed album after another.

Like Westerberg's most recent solo albums — namely Stereo/Mono and Come Feel Me Tremble — Folker captures the seasoned songwriter sounding content with where his career's second wind has taken him.

Folker, like its title suggests, is more folk than punk, making it Westerberg's most mellow album to date. And with it being recorded and produced entirely in Westerberg's basement, Folker's simplicity could easily be mistaken for a lack of effort on its creator's part.

However, the Minnesotan eases doubts about his folk aspirations three tracks into the album with the intensely personal "My Dad."

The mid-tempo number chugs along in patented solo Westerberg fashion — slurred lyrics voiced over a steady backdrop of restrained electric guitars. But the song's lyrical content, in which Westerberg explores his poor relationship with his now-deceased father, gives the song its unique edge — "My dad sitting in his chair/ He's never seen me play/ He gets a kick from the newspaper/ When he sees the family name."

From there, Westerberg moves onto the breezy pop folk of "Lookin' Up In Heaven" — Folker's strongest track. Shimmering acoustic guitar riffs and sweetly expressed vocals combine to support the track's heavenly vibe: "Looking up in heaven but you weren't anywhere in sight/ They asked me 'Stick around' but without you it just wasn't right/ They invited me to stick around ya know, but I told 'em there was another place I had to check out tonight."

Despite all the excellent moments Folker has to offer — and there are plenty — Westerberg has included material that isn't up to par for a musician of his talent.

The disc's middle portion is home to many forgettable pieces due to Westerberg's aggravating vocal performances.

Though Westerberg's vocal inconsistencies, like slight cracks, add character to faster songs on which carrying a tune isn't required, they seriously hurt Folker's slower songs. Some, especially "How Can You Like Him?" (Interlude No. 2) and "Any Way It's All Right," are prime candidates to see skip-button action thanks entirely to Westerberg's fingernails-on-a-chalkboard singing.

However, the middle of Folker isn't a completely barren wasteland.

The animated folk rocker "As Far As I Know," featuring catchy lyrics — "I'm in love with someone that doesn't exist/ Keep looking for her everywhere I go/ I'm in love with something that doesn't exist/ As far as I know" — is unforgettable and a great candidate for radio play.

Westerberg closes Folker with the ironically titled "Folk Star," the album's most obviously punk-inspired tune. Overcrunching electric guitars and a driving drumbeat, Westerberg brashly screams "I'm a folk star now!" in pure rock-star fashion. It's out of place on Folker, but a fine flashback to Replacements-era Westerberg.

Westerberg's done better lately, especially on Stereo/Mono. But Folker might be the beginning of another, more laid-back chapter in the rock hero's storied career.

Like he did when he first went solo, it's easy to believe Westerberg will figure things out before long.

Grade: BC