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Mike Watt - Hyphenated-Man

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Artist: Mike Watt

Album: Hyphenated-Man

Label: Clenched Wrench

Review date: May. 5, 2011

Mike Watt, you say? Surely your mind wondered for a moment how much this new album might sound like Minutemen. The 25 years since D. Boon’s death haven’t been illustrious for Watt, but they have, like the man himself, been likable and fascinating enough to keep his credibility unimpeachable. For every bro-tastic thanks from Chili Peppers or jam with Gov’t Mule, there’s been improvising with Nels Cline or deejaying on low-power San Pedro radio. We haven’t, however, been treated to much of Watt’s free-associative songwriting since Columbia dropped him in 2004.

To answer that question, yes, Hyphenated-Man sounds like Minutemen – a lot more like Minutemen than anything he or anyone else has ever done. Thirty songs that average around 100 seconds, each miniature just big enough to hold a contradiction. Funk bobbles too fast to be funky. Riffs that should be fat are played twangy and clipped. F-bombs are dropped in the friendliest way imaginable. It tumbles forward, seeming richer on each listen, as the progression of the fragments draws a bigger picture.

Watt making a record like this raises a question: Why wasn’t all of his output like this? The funk-punk that followed in the wake of Minutemen was mostly awful. Perhaps it’s better to view the band’s Californian rethinking of Wire and Gang of Four as an anomaly, wrapped up by a good documentary and some royalties for the Jackass theme. It seemed healthy that Watt had moved on aesthetically, even as much of his writing contemplated the years with D. Boon. Their politics were specific, and D. Boon’s death after Reagan’s second election made the records into potent, accessible time capsules. Boon and Watt detailed a street-level disbelief of America sliding backward, swinging to the right. It’s similar to the way Dr. Strangelove explains its era without a viewer having to know the nitty-gritty of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Their albums document guys making themselves into blue-collar intellectuals, just as the culture was codifying that you couldn’t be both. As the LPs and EPs have been chopped and sorted awkwardly to suit the running time of compact discs, their discography has become like a drawer full of chapbooks, a jumble of autobiography, tract and poetry.

Hyphenated-Man plays like Minutemen, but the process of creation was nothing like the rapid writing and recording of the SST days. Watt sketched out these tunes on guitar (one of D. Boon’s, hindered by Watt’s own discomfort on the instrument) and let guitarist Tom Watson and drummer Raul Morales flesh out the arrangement for recording. But he didn’t add bass or vocals until after Watson and Morales’ work had sat for a year. The lyrics, or at least their titles, are inspired by figures from Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights.” The tangled and twisted little men are a starting point for musing on the tangles of his life, as his bass twists though the rhythmic landscape. Watt looks at an antlered-man in the painting, and sees Black Flag:

    a hankerin’ yeah, a hunger actually stronger when more younger but sentimental ain’t so gentle actually comical when less younger tryin’ to act like somethin’ stronger but the ego just won’t let go so the shamin’ bursts out flamin’ a dynamic woman w/special skills abandon body hear her spiels but this costume fuckin’ blows so get naked let weakness show yank off antlers and fuckin’ chuck use the bass be old man punk

The larger picture he draws is of a guy who’s agitated and curious, free of younger anger, but still anxious. The overlay of Bosch brings out the Captain Beefheart tendencies that have always been present in his work. Beefheart’s surreal parade of animals and obscenities were as if his brushwork were trying to escape the music, and here the painting of cracked eggshells and jug-footed peasants is forced to contain the denizens of Watt’s familiar, yet disorienting life. It’s bluesy, but free of cliche, as busted mariachi leads are fit over jazzy thumps. On “Blowing-It-Out-Both-Ends-Man” his voice is gruffer than 30 years ago, but still pairs well with the itchy, tuneless pogo of the song.

Watt’s salty presence makes Hyphenated-Man feel like art rock made by Popeye characters -- a slice of established pop culture that’s still weird. At the very least, this is a neat addendum to his early work, with enough ideas to grant it a life of it’s own.

By Ben Donnelly

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