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Mike Watt's "Contemplating the Engine Room" and Various Artists "What's Up Matador"

By Michael Henningsen

NOVEMBER 17, 1997: 

Mike Watt Contemplating the Engine Room (Columbia)

As uncool as it may be in Hipsterland to not immediately like a Mike Watt record, I must begin by admitting that my first reaction to Contemplating the Engine Room was, "What the hell is Mike Watt thinking?" That's because Watt's latest effort is quite unlike anything we've come to expect from the master of the thunder-broom who validated our adolescent hormonal imbalances and rebellious tendencies with the Minutemen and, later, our travels into young adulthood with Firehose and a star-studded first solo release. Engine Room is, as Watt himself eloquently explains on the disc's front sticker, a punk rock opera intended to biograph his life with the Minutemen and, to make matters even more complex and confusing, his father's life in the Navy.

Joined on this outing by guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Stephen Hodges, Watt toys with the complexity of the almighty concept album, going for the throat in a punk rock sense only occasionally. Much of Engine Room, then, is made up of the legendary bassist walking us through 24 hours in the half-reality of his past, tossing in not altogether clear snapshots of his father's effect on his life. Most of the record revolves around Watt's perpetual lament for the dearly departed D. Boon--to whom the record is dedicated--and stands as a sort of punk chronicle.

Listeners expecting the back-to-basics-but-with-a-bunch-of-really-cool-stars sound that made Ball Hog or Tugboat a glistening comeback for Watt will immediately be taken aback by the storybook quality that pervades Engine Room. And while Watt is most certainly telling a story, it is sometimes difficult to know just what the plot is leading to. His lyrics, often Vaudevillian in nature, at times sound more suited for a spoken word record than they do a punk record, which Engine Room most certainly isn't in the traditional sense of unbridled energy and inertia. This is a record that sounds as if Watt put a lot of time into arranging. There's never any question that his intentions are heartfelt but, at times, his metaphors are a bit heady. On tracks like "The Boilerman," it's quite obvious that he's musing over his friend, D. Boon, but songs like "Red Bluff" are the antithesis of such blatant remembrance. Throughout the record, though, it is made clear that the engine room in question is meant to represent such in the literal sense of Watt's father's Navy experience and, in the proverbial sense, Watt's experiences as a member of the Minutemen.

Oddly enough, Watt spends little counter time singing about the death of his friend, instead--and quite refreshingly--celebrating his life. "I love you, man," he sings in the final seconds of "Boilerman," speaking as though Boon were still among us. And, that Boon's spirit is still as affecting in Watt's mind as it was when the man was alive is perhaps the point of the whole record.

Contemplating the Engine Room is a personal masterpiece for Watt, who, after all these years, realizes somewhat reluctantly that his contributions as a Minuteman have had a lasting effect on punk rock and the genre's millions of subscribers. And for that alone, he deserves at least 60 minutes and 36 seconds of your time. !!!!

Various Artists What's Up Matador (Matador)

Not much more can be said of this two-CD set than it's simply excellent. If you're a fan of Matador artists, that is. Disc one features 24 previously released tracks while disc two serves up 20 of the unreleased variety. The compilation represents everyone from Pavement and Guided by Voices to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Helium. For pure listening enjoyment, you just can't do much better than What's Up Matador. And with a slant that leans 45 degrees toward some of the best in indie rock (never mind that Hollywood Records now owns the lion's share of Matador), this is one that will almost certainly spend more time in your CD player than it does on the shelf. In a world inundated by shitty mainstream compilations, it's refreshing to hear the Frogs sandwiched in between Chain Gang and Chavez. And even more refreshing to hear just one more Liz Phair track recorded prenesting phase. !!!!!

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