Slim dunlap is a big-city guy with small-town aspirations. If you know the name at all, you associate it with the Replacements, the Minneapolis band for which Dunlap played rhythm guitar in the late ’80s. Dunlap was a 15-year veteran of no-name groups before joining the post-peak ‘mats, and he went back to the bar circuit after the band imploded in 1990. I didn’t pay much attention to Dunlap’s first solo album, “The Old New Me,” in part because I was busy trying to figure out why Paul Westerberg seemed so much less an “artist” without that sloppy band behind him. But Dunlap’s second solo release, “Times Like This,” is more satisfying than Westerberg’s last album for the same reason that it’s more fun to watch the St. Paul Saints than the major-league Minnesota Twins: Stripped of big bucks, the game is open again to real-life drama. “Times Like This” is a pure minor-league triumph, and that’s meant as a compliment.
No one has ever called Dunlap a genius or a star, and probably no one ever will. He’s a modestly talented guy who wishes he could play guitar like Keith Richards, tries to write songs like Westerberg and sings a bit like John Prine. When it all comes together, it sounds a lot better than it should.
Listen to “Hate This Town,” about a guy who dreams he never left the small hometown he couldn’t wait to leave and discovers he likes it as an adult. After he wakes up, he goes back for the first time in years and naturally it’s much worse than he remembers. Still, he wonders if things might be better had he stuck around to run the local hardware store the way his dad wanted, and he concludes, “I wish I’d stayed.”
Evidence that Dunlap himself feels this way — as well as proof of why he’s still doggedly loyal to music — dominate “Times Like This”: “Not Yet/Ain’t No Fair” offers the loose swing of Let It Be-period Replacements through the story of a musician who hits the stage eager to play, only to be stopped by his bandmates who are paralyzed by fear. “Little Shiva’s Song” is a two-minute tribute to a young punk drummer whose lean-and-spare backbeat rescues her band’s inability to write songs or sing them very well. “Nowheres Near” is particularly poignant because it captures the frustration of rehearsing with a band destined for the second slot on a Tuesday night. Maybe because his career is such a frustrating mess, Dunlap finds more satisfaction offstage than he does onstage. “Cozy” is a convincing nod to domestic bliss that sounds like the early ’70s Stones fronted by a monogamous Mick Jagger.
Dunlap skirts dangerous territory when he starts courting failure as a weird end in itself. On “Radio Hook Word Hit,” he admits he’d love to hear his music on the radio, but then self-consciously sabotages his latest effort with tons of echo and feedback. But most of the time on “Times Like This,” Dunlap sounds grateful just to be a working musician. As he puts it without pity on “Not Yet/Ain’t No Fair,” “there ain’t no fair in a rock and roll love affair.”