Family toon 'Season' is Westerberg's big score

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At first glance, Paul Westerberg -- the former leader of the shambolic, often-inebriated punk band the Replacements -- would appear an odd choice to write the music for a CGI-animated feature for children about cuddly forest animals.

But on Sept. 29, Columbia/Sony Pictures Animation's "Open Season" will debut with a brace of tuneful new compositions by Westerberg. On Tuesday, Lost Highway issues the soundtrack album, which includes eight Westerberg tracks.

The musician has been a maverick force since the early '80s, when the 'Mats -- as they're known by fans -- tore around the country and inspired a devoted cult with their slovenly, endearing sound. Some of Westerberg's fans occupy rarefied positions in the film business. Cameron Crowe commissioned him to write the title song for his 1992 feature "Singles." And Columbia Pictures president of worldwide music Lia Vollack saw the virtue of hiring a gifted melodist like Westerberg for "Open Season."

"We were out peddling songs from (the 2004 solo album) 'Folker' to film companies to see if we could place a tune," Westerberg recalls. "We met Lia last, and we hit it off right away. She started talking about the old days and whatnot and asked if I wanted to write a couple songs for an animated movie. I said, yeah, sure, I'll knock out a couple."

Over the course of two years, defections and arrivals on the "Open Season" production team affected the music, Westerberg says, "It started off a rock 'n' roll score, and then it ended up not so much rock 'n' roll, with a lot of strings and all the traditional things."

In addition to penning the songs -- which range from such grand, rambunctious rockers as "Meet Me in the Meadow" and the initial single "Love You in the Fall" to ballads like "I Belong" -- Westerberg had to contend with writing the score. "In the end, they brought in this Ramin (Djawadi) fella, who is very much the whiz kid," Westerberg says. "Somebody said it had to be orchestrated -- it wasn't going to fly with electric guitars all the way through."

Westerberg, who makes his own albums in his home studio in Minneapolis, admits that fabricating music for a major Hollywood production is not simple work. "I thought it was pretty hard," he says. "Lia kept joking that she'd get me a nice romantic comedy next. I could do it in a month or something."

Work for "Open Season" laid the groundwork for a studio reunion of the Replacements, who disbanded acrimoniously in 1990. An L.A. session to record a soundtrack number brought Westerberg together with his initially wary bassist Tommy Stinson; two Westerberg-Stinson tracks appear on the Lost Highway album. The pair went on to record two new songs for Rhino's recent best-of collection, with ex-drummer Chris Mars, now a successful visual artist, contributing background vocals.

A Replacements boxed set is tentatively on Rhino's 2007 schedule. Westerberg maintains a profound ambivalence about his old work and is keeping his distance from compilation labors on the box at this point. But he confesses that he can still be tickled by the 'Mats' music.

"I was surprised the other day when I heard something good on the radio. I turned it up, and I started groovin', and I was thinking, this is sort of like rockabilly, but it's poppy, and yet it's got this garage thing." He chuckles and adds, "It took me 20 seconds to realize it was us -- it was 'Love You Till Friday.' So the proof is in the pudding."
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