Mike Watt has journeyed a long way from his San Pedro roots and his position as the bass-man for the greatest North American punk band (and arguably the best rock trio ever) the Minutemen, but no matter where circumstance takes him it’s quickly apparent that a well maintained personal compass will reliably lead him back home. Furthermore he stands as one of the few defiant proles to draw firsthand inspiration in the original punk wave that can still be described as legitimately carrying on that thorny ideological and musical tradition. And by that I simply mean he can be accurately described as “punk” without a) stretching the concept like taffy or b) having to contend with any obnoxious fashion garbage. But this is ultimately no surprise since two main tenets of Watt’s substantial rep have always been to push boundaries, never falling back on cliché, and to keep the scale small, the distance from the stage and the floor as infinitesimal as possible, the better to relate to those in the audience as peers instead of consumers. And while I continue to take much personal inspiration from the man’s approachable, encouraging personality and how it twines with his unflagging enthusiasm and parsimonious ingenuity, I do think this has sorta taken precedent over the boundary kicking/cliché shredding side of Watt’s enduring gush. For the guy is as comfortable spieling on the Modernist literature of James Joyce as that of music writer Richard Meltzer (which maybe isn’t so odd since as formidably uncompromising and challenging as Joyce’s work could be, he was always a street-level writer [no ivory tower for him] and one endlessly concerned [later consumed] with the sound, the music of language) and not only knowledgeable on the groundbreaking jazz of John Coltrane/Ornette Coleman and the unruly spirit of punk pioneers Richard Hell/The Germs but equally giving with all of it (that’s “Relatin’ Dudes to Jazz”). And he doesn’t just end his gigs with the exhortation “Start Yr Own Band!” he follows it with “Paint Yr Own Picture! Write Yr Own Book!” Which is more than just encouragement; it’s also a finely spoken way of saying that every great musician was once a member of the audience, every painter a denizen of the museum, every writer a patron of the library. From this it can also be inferred that the greatest artists never truly disconnect from the audience, the museum, the library, identifying them as reliable locales of leaning and inspiration: Art as an endless cycle of give and take, or (if you will) communication. And all this profoundly connects to Mike Watt’s new release THE HYPHENATED MAN, his third opera, this one partially inspired by Early Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch, specifically his triptych THE GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS. Now, operas are often recorded, but the main point of the form is live performance, and if a fancy bug touched down on my shoulder and mentioned an anonymous opera connected to the work of Bosch I’d form a couple of preconceived notions, thinking I’d either need to rent a tuxedo and take out a loan for the ticket or that I’d end up in an art-space/loft where everyone in attendance has a Master’s Degree but somehow still needs to sell plasma to pay the rent. Now if that bug waited to inform me that this opera was indeed by Mr. Mike Watt, I’d brush him off my shoulder like a pest, for time is valuable. And this too is something Watt has always seemed to understand. THE HYPHENATED MAN is thirty songs in less than fifty minutes, so it has a lot on its mind but doesn’t go a lingering. Points are arrived at quickly but always artfully, and while each track is inspired by a different character from the mammoth wacked-out beauty of THE GARDEN, it’s readily apparent that the best entry way into MAN is to absorb it as one flowing, uninterrupted piece, kind of like an, um, opera. This is distinct from the gargantuan sprawl of the painting, which almost forces the eye to reject the whole and instead focus on its vast, rich minutiae. MAN is instead a self contained if angular work that can be swallowed in one joyous gulp. In this sense it’s similar to Minutemen’s WHAT MAKES A MAN START FIRES? Don’t think for an instant that I’m letting unbridled enjoyment form a faulty comparison to the exalted grandeur of the Minutemen. Watt with the Missingmen throws down his most cohesive and dynamic work, simply his best instrumentally since the death of D. Boon. Much as I love fIREHOSE, I feel the real significance of that group was in allowing Watt to regain his musical footing through the aid of George Hurley and inspired journeyman Ed Crawford. And much as I love The Black Gang, The Secondmen, his work with Nels Cline and the fruitful All-Star party that was BALLHOG OR TUGBOAT?, all of it lacks the intuitive power of Minutemen/Missingmen. Perhaps this is why the names are so similar. The only comparable spot in Watt’s oeuvre is Dos, his duo with ex-wife and fellow bassist Kira Roessler. Bands that attain this level of telepathic (jazz-like) understanding are often described as “tight”, but I feel that’s an inferior adjective. Blood Sweat and Tears and Fishbone are tight; never a note out of place but sadly lacking in musical surprise. The Missingmen are something different, maybe best described as Beefheartian. If I were to sum up the essence of THE HYPHENATED MAN onto a fortune cookie message, I might say “Capt. Don piloting the B.O.C, through Watt’s channel”. B.O.C. means Blue Oyster Cult, and that means Watt is still refining and perfecting the hard rock dynamics through punk economy that was part of the whole SST Records shebang back in the day. Missingmen guitarist Tom Watson was involved with that scene through the criminally underheard band Slovenly, though they weren’t hard rock, far more an extension of the avant-garage ala Pere Ubu (and that ex-Ubu Tony Mamione engineered and mixed THE HYPHENATED MAN unites a whole lot of thematic circuits). To be brief (for once), Watson’s never sounded better. Drummer Raul Morales is the trio’s youngest member, but you wouldn’t know that by skill, for he weds jazzic brains and finesse to rockish (not rockist) muscle like an aged vet. And Watt’s strumming, plucking, singing and spieling like a true champ. While this fine record easily deserves another 1,000 words, I’ll sum it up thusly: it’s as great and intelligent as rock music gets, straining at the confines of genre and simultaneously redefining it, a record destined to last millennia (like Bosch) and with an ultra-suave Raymond Pettibon cover as the cherry on the top.
Neko Case has developed into one of this toddling new millennium’s finest singer songwriters, though her roots extend back to the mid-‘90s twee-pop movement, where she was briefly in Cub along with playing drums and singing with the pleasant if short lived outfit Maow. She shifted gears into her current mode of operation in ’97 with THE VIRGINIAN. Released by Neko Case & Her Boyfriends, it was a cannonball plunge into the strong currents of contemporary alt-country, and with the exception of her outstanding contributions to Carl Newman’s ongoing band/project New Pornographers this is the post where her musical growth has remained at least somewhat hitched. She’s yet to release a record that’s less than very good, and her last one, 2009’s MIDDLE CYCLONE, just might be her best thus far. CYCLONE possesses solid continuity that’s remindful of the artist friendly atmosphere fostered by big labels like Elektra and Reprise back in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, and a big part of this aura relates to its appealingly slippery approach to genre: country yes, but also folky and poppy with hints of soul and rock. This might create problems for those who arrange their record collections by style, but that’s a fine problem to have. Filing it right beside Cat Power’s THE GREATEST would be a shrewd move though, for the two records bookend incredibly well: both are grand late night listens, both sound like they could’ve been produced by Lenny Waronker, and both are saturated with stellar musical support that’s in total synch with the musical objectives of their estimable leaders. On CYCLONE Case has one foot in the coffee-house without stepping totally out of the honky-tonk and she blends in sly hints of soul diva confidence with ease. The album’s third track “People Got a Lotta Nerve” provides ample evidence of the above and more, for musically it’s a superb hunk of ‘80s chime pop brilliance that flirts with lyrical disaster. Keeping in mind that the personal resonance of lyrics are a largely subjective thing, something I come to understand more and more as I continue to engage with vocal music in languages I don’t understand, I still can’t get around the tightrope walk of “People…”’s lyrical chutzpah. When Case sings in the chorus that she’s a maneater it seems clearly descended from the brassy smack-talking frankness of pop country gals Loretta Lynn or Tammy Wynette or even the post-rockabilly of Wanda Jackson, but then it’s combined with a steady stream of animal imagery (elephants, killer whales) that feels ripped straight from the notebook pages of an intense teen girl in the grips of an attitudinal head of steam. It has the makings of an epic fail, but Case pulls it off with panache, partially due to the songs wise brevity. And its success points to Case’s growth, her maturity as an artist, flaunting the ability to really go there and make it work instead of playing it safe. This sort of chance taking attitude is represented by the over-the-top kookiness of the record’s cover art. I’ve stared at the album jacket numerous times, musing that I don’t know what she was thinking, but I’m glad she thought it. And her maturity/growth is what essentially sets her apart from Cat Power. Chan Marshall began by releasing “out” music on the fringes of the indie scene, delivering simmering documents of gripping alienation and difficulty. Play DEAR SIR or MYRA LEE for someone familiar only with THE GREATEST and it’s very possible they will get quite fidgety right quick. Along the way, Marshall’s music didn’t so much mature as it took a severe left turn, as if she looked in the metaphorical mirror one day and said “I’m not that person anymore”. And that’s cool. But the development of Case is cool too. THE VIRGINIAN is just soggy with alt-country’s trick of being beholden to the influence of idols whilst simultaneously frustrating purist expectations: chock full of twang but it ain’t a museum piece, dig? MIDDLE CYCLONE is the latest in her steady movement away from alt-country bonafides toward what’s probably best described as Contemporary Singer-Songwriter, her stuff becoming more resistant to that aforementioned hitching post of genre by the album. Again, very much in the Elektra/Reprise ballpark, but again this is no severe left turn. CYCLONE’s excellent covers of Sparks and Harry Nilsson might appear to be a newish development, but it’s important to recall that THE VIRGINIAN in addition to the more predictable treatments of greats like The Everly Brothers and Ernest Tubb also included a cover of cult Brit Scott Walker’s “Duchess”. MIDDLE CYCLONE is fine evidence of a very talented woman in total control of her musical abilities and the direction she wants to take them. Anybody curious to the state of smart modern pop should give it a hearing.