The Boston Phoenix
October 23 - 30, 1997

[Music Reviews]

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HMS Watt

Capt'n Mike's punk-rock opera

by Ted Drozdowski

[Mike Watt] What becomes a punk-rock legend most?

In the case of Mike Watt, it's love. His new Contemplating the Engine Room (Columbia) brims with the stuff. Love for his family and his roots. For his hometown: San Pedro, California. For music and the process of making it, and all the friends and allies he's shared that with. And, most poignantly for longtime fans of Watt's work, love for his lost friend the late D. Boon. Boon was someone who fell out of the sky -- or at least a tree -- to knock Watt unconscious and set him upon the road of his somewhat charmed life. What greater gift could a friend bestow?

That Watt treasures the gifts that have fallen to him is evident on nearly every one of Engine Room's 15 songs. His everyman's voice sounds relaxed and content -- at peace with his history and accomplishments and place in the universe. When he sings "I'm a lucky man" in "The Boilerman," which celebrates his meeting Boon, it's a touching expression of honesty -- the equivalent of a gospel singer testifying for Jesus.

It's tempting to call this the bassist/songwriter's least-calculated work since his days with guitarist Boon and drummer George Hurley as early-'80s punk torchbearers the Minutemen. Especially since Engine Room follows Ball-hog or Tugboat?, Watt's 1995 solo debut, which was bolstered by an unignorable cast of alterna-rock heroes including Eddie Vedder and J Mascis. But that would be an exaggeration, because Watt's latest is a concept album -- a punk-rock opera.

At least, that's what he calls it.

This CD is a loose autobiography that ranges from his lineage, with tales of his father's growth to manhood, to his days with Boon discovering punk rock and then wallowing in it as they created some of the best modern music made in the USA. Engine Room -- which uses its all-at-sea setting as a metaphor for navigating the oceans of life -- ends with Watt's realization that he's found his place creatively and maybe even found himself. That voyage over, he's now happy pulling "Shore Duty" (the CD's last song), simply being Mike Watt and making Wattmusic.

The Wattmusic on this album is part Gilbert & Sullivan, part cosmic awakening. Hearing the rough-edged live debut of Engine Room in New York last month, as part of a Columbia Records showcase during the annual convention of the magazine College Music Journal, I was struck mostly by the former. Initially I thought the very concept of a rock opera seemed too precious for Watt's down-to-earth "econo" philosophy of life and musicmaking. So when I spotted him slouching on some empty beer cases next to the bar -- as the college DJs and other attendees grooved on their first time hearing opener Ric Ocasek spiel out Cars songs -- I asked him watt's watt with the "rock opera" thing.

"Punk-rock. PUNK-rock opera!" he said, pointing between my eyes. "Punk. That's very important. You watch."

I did. And it was touching to see this pioneering flannel wearer singing about his world and -- at the same time -- winging it musically. He spent as much effort thumping bass and projecting his guts into the microphone as he did cueing drummer Stephen Hodges and guitarist Joe Baiza (former Saccharine Trust and Universal Congress of . . . genius, who was new to the music). There were passages of gentle improvisation, then enough punk thunder to bring a less-mannered crowd to the throes of moshing. There were also sound effects -- waves splashing, valves being turned -- that reminded me of an old radio play.

There's no rust -- and no obvious learning curve -- on the album, however, where Watt's joined by Hodges and guitarist Nels Cline (who was on the Ball-hog or Tugboat? tour and plays with the Geraldine Fibbers). In his liner notes, Watt says the CD is "one whole piece that celebrates three people playing together." Indeed, few rock trios since the Minutemen (and before that the Jimi Hendrix Experience) have vibed so eloquently. The music here seems a combination of Watt's every influence, from three-chord punk to free jazz to light opera to avant-skronk. Watt's the glue, playing rolling phrases on his tuned-down bass that establish the mood for each song. Hodges commands a masterful palette of insinuating thumps, coloring Watt's lyrics with percussive notions or snapping the trio in fresh directions. Cline, however, provides the big thrills, whether using subtle swells of volume to illuminate the arrival of a new idea in Watt's narrative or exploding like the raga-influenced love child of Hendrix and Sonny Sharrock.

Contemplating the Engine Room is the kind of work rarely found in rock anymore. How often, when listening to the radio, do we understand what the artists behind the songs really think and feel? Here, Watt's opened up his heart. Have a look.

(Mike Watt plays the Met Café in Providence this Wednesday, October 29, and the Middle East in Cambridge next Thursday, October 30.)

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