Like most of Paul Westerberg's post-Replacements work, Stereo and Mono are most listenable when the artist conveys vulnerability without the sappiness he often mistakes for maturity. The curiously named Stereo, essentially a solo project featuring sparse instrumentation and slower tempos, sports the most effective examples of Westerberg at his post-Winona-dating best. Specifically, "Boring Enormous" -- which includes the line "Will they inform us that up close we still look afraid?" -- portrays the pathos of a midlife crisis without descending into melodrama. "We May Be the Ones" treads a similar tightrope, balancing wistful images of a banana seat and a rusty pocket knife with Vietnam-era trappings that include napalm and an empty military helmet. Equally satisfying is the lilting melancholy of "Only Lie Worth Telling," during which the tunesmith implores a potential sweetheart to "Call me when your eyes are empty and open all night."
Stereo's shortcomings, on the other hand, include needless repetition and a forced preciousness that implies Westerberg is trying to craft the type of offhanded charm that used to come naturally when he was -- let's face it -- perpetually sloshed. "Dirt to Mud," for instance, grows tiresome before its second stanza is over -- so much so that it seems a blessing when Westerberg's tape eventually runs out in mid-sentence. Equally yawn-inducing is the one-joke wordplay of "Let the Bad Times Roll" and the underdeveloped nature of at least half of the disc's offerings. Listeners who stick it out to the bitter end, however, are rewarded with an unlisted but sloppily faithful rendition of the '80s chestnut "Postcards From Paradise."
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Conversely, Mono (credited to Westerberg's sometime alter ego, Grandpa Boy) features fuller instrumentation throughout, at times capturing the gleeful lurch of prime 'Mats material. The strongest cut here is "Silent Film Star," which offers the sing-song suggestion that its subject keep her "pretty little trap shut." More raucous but less satisfying are "Knock It Right Out," a too-cryptic commentary that's probably about the recording industry, and "I'll Do Anything," which features a gleefully out-of-sync guitar break and Bryan Adams-style squawking of the type that's not been heard since "I'll Be You." More bittersweet in tone are "Two Days 'Til Tomorrow" and "Eyes Like Sparks," cuts on which Westerberg's melancholy unfortunately gets the better of him. Mono's most unintentionally revealing moment, however, occurs during "AAA," another swipe at the music business. The song's chorus assures listeners that Westerberg "ain't got anything to say to anyone anymore."
Despite occasional signs of spunk and compositional competence, Mono and Stereo are unlikely to recapture the public's imagination, much less its pocketbook.