Oddly enough, for a while, the most prolific artist to rise out of the ashes of Minneapolis’ self-destructive Replacements was drummer Chris Mars. The unfailing rhythmic glue that held the ‘Mats together through the wild digressions of its early days, Mars became so dissatisfied with Paul Westerberg’s intentions on 1990’s All Shook Down that his outspoken opinions eventually led to his departure. That was a bad omen for the band, which never made another record. Relying on his artwork (and unemployment checks) for funds, Mars signed on to the part- time Golden Smog and played offbeat covers around the Twin Cities and then got a solo career underway.
Mars sings, drums and plays guitar and keyboards on Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, enlisting bassist J. D. Foster as his sideman. (Dave Pirner and Dan Murphy of Soul Asylum make contributions to three tracks as well.) The results sound nothing like the Replacements. Filled with bitter tirades against the privileged (“Reverse Status”) and scenesters (“Popular Creeps”), the set also reveals Mars’ sentimental side on “Before It Began.” On this surprising, impressive record, Mars falters only with his hoarse, tuneless vocals.
75% Less Fat, recorded solely with Foster, contains another dose of biting reflection: “Stuck in Rewind” fixes a piercing stare on barflies, “Public Opinion” slags the politically correct and “Whining Horse” shows no pity for complainers. But it’s the instrumental sidetrack of “Nightcap,” a soft jazz-pop number, that suggests Mars has more on his mind than rock. 75% Less Fat may not push the envelope, but it cements an image of Mars as a serious musician with his own vision.
After leaving the majors, Mars spent some time creating album covers and showing his accomplished grotesqueries at art galleries before moving to Bar/None and releasing Tenterhooks. Fans of Mars’ first two albums may be disappointed by his new-found fascination with an odd amalgamation of styles that run from rap and jazz to disco and Midwestern surf-rock — complete with kettle drums, strings and found sounds. Recorded in Mars’ living room with guitarist Chuck Whitney and trumpeter Doug deGrood (in real life, respectively, a computer technician and ad copywriter), Tenterhooks‘ scattershot approach is more self-indulgent than intriguing. The disc’s diversity proves that Mars is best off sticking to what he does best: rock. “White Patty Rap” takes on Caucasian musicians who help themselves to African-American music, but it’s a confusing turn. And while Mars reaches for touching balladry on “Mary,” his vocals are still too rough to carry it off. Mars refuses to go on the road, so Syracuse’s Wallmen toured behind Tenterhooks, covering the material for him — joined center stage by a cardboard Mars standup.