Contemplating the Engine Room
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Contemplating The Engine Room
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Audio, Cassette, December 1, 2016
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On former Minutemen and Firehose bassist Mike Watt's second "solo" outing (he's joined by guitarist Nil Cline and drummer Stephen Hedges), the idea of a punk-rock opera (his words) or concept album (critic's term) doesn't seem so outrageous. Paying homage to his dad's life on the San Pedro, California, waterfront and to the late D. Boon, the now quasi-mythic Minutemen singer-guitarist, Watt covers as much musical ground as he does personal history. Solid tracks such as "Black Gang Coffee" and "The Blue Jackets Manual" are fine nods to the playful punk punch of the Minutemen, and chiming guitars with a sea-shanty feel permeate "In the Engine Room." A churning psychedelic energy drives "Liberty Calls," while "Breaking the Choke Hold" serves as a contemplative and sad farewell. A pleasant, intimate listening experience, all told. --Lorry Fleming
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So, what is this album? A tribute to certain influences that have made a great muscians life. Namely, his father, D. Boon and the weird little hamlet of San Pedro, California. With a much belated nod to the great George Hurely. It is also a punk-rock opera with Nels and Steve Hodges providing very inspired music to Watt's bi-polar bass lines.
Musicly, it covers a large spectrum. The Blue Jackets Manual is a powerful ode to his father's days in the Navy. Crazy thumping bass that sometimes chirps as well as beautiful guitar work by the abovementioned Nels Cline. Then you get something like No One Says Old Man (To The Old Man) which is as mellow as anything and seems to hint a little bit at Watt's Masonic connections (I don't know either, but it comes up from time to time in his songs. See Mr. Machinery Operator). My favorite has to be Liberty Calls! which is just as manic and brilliant as anything Watt has done. Fireman Hurely is a cool tune, too. Especially if you are a fan of Georgies.
This is a great album to put on at a reasonable volume and enjoy with a good red wine and a pack of cigarettes. Surprising, yet familiar all at once. Is it as flat out rock as Ball Hog or Tugboat? No, And cleary, I don't think Watt wanted it that way. Do some of the tunes go a little spacey and sound very Dos inflected? Yes, but, this is an album which is meant to be taken in its entirerty, not a song at a time. Enjoy!
The songs are extremely well written and played. At first I was a little put off by Watt's speech/singing but it really works well with the music and the concept.
Being a fan of avant garde jazz, I find most rock music to be pretty boring. Most is pretty poorly crafted, with rather bland arrangements and stupid lyrics. I hope to find more things of this quality but I seriously doubt I'll find much. This at least gives me some hope for the genre.
Mike Watt is an original in what has become a genre of copycats. While young 'punks' look to find their new heroes in Seventeen magazine, old schoolers like Watt continue to break the barriers of what punk music is all about. But this is nothing new for Mike. The avant-garde So-Cal trio, Minutemen, is one of the gems from the 80's punk movement (back when it was a movement). Biting political commentary, funny and introspective housed inside songs rarely longer than 1 minute, the Minutemen should long be remembered.
Even Watt's lesser project, fIREHOSE, and the somewhat erratic first solo effort (Ball Hog or Tugboat?) is far more interesting than anything you could possibly find on the radio today.
But Watt may have finally outdone himself with this slab. Teaming up with one of the most fascinating and fantastic guitar players, Nels Cline, Watt enriches us with a tale of family history, youth, friendship, sorrow and San Pedro. Although all of his records have been dedicated to D. Boon, this one is clearly the most deserving.
The songs are completely original. At times the record rolls like a freight train with the powerful opening number and Bluejacket's Manual. Yet, it also creates moments of a lighter canvas with the bluegrass infused Red Bluff.
As great as Mike is at his craft (that would be the thunderbroom or bass if you prefer), he is more concerned with creating an emotional connection with his audience than providing fancy riffing. In fact, it is Nels Cline and his imaginitive guitar playing that gets the nod for the best individual work on this album. The first solo work of the record will leave you in disbelief and it only gets better from there.
This is definitely a concept album, far more worthy of comparison to other brilliant works such as Husker Du's Zen Arcade and The Who's Quadrophenia.
The snot-nosed kids from Berkeley could learn a thing or two from Watt. In fact, a lot of us could.
Watt handles thump staff and spiel as well, Nels Cline is on guitars and Stephen Hodges plays drums. They create a roving, discursive sound that achieves a definitive atmosphere. Like waves, their sound washes around you in different ways each time. A stellar album.