Mike Watt is one of those artists who's been around forever and has no doubt seen just about everything one could see in regards to rock music. He was a part of the speedy fast punk group the Minutemen and spent time with the cult favorite band Firehose as well. Not only that, but he's also had a long and fairly critically acclaimed solo career. On his Ball Hog Or Tug Boat? release, he collaborated with some of the biggest names in rock at the time, including Eddie Vedder.
Although I'd heard work by the both the groups he'd been in and a bit of his solo work (including the aforementioned album in which he works with tons of famous artist), I'd never really sat down and listened to much of the work that Mike Watt had a hand in. For some reason, it never grabbed me much and I never really paid much attention to him, even when he started receiving rave reviews for Contemplating The Engine Room. Finally, after some coaxing by a friend of mine and the luck of finding the album cheap, I took a chance on it. As it turns out, I wouldn't have minded paying full price for it. Not only is it the most interesting work that I've ever heard by Mike Watt, but I had to go back and edit my top releases of 1997 list to include it. It's that good, and because I missed out on it the first time around I feel that I need to spread the word.
As Watt explains things, the release works as sort of a punk rock opera, following the life of three guys on a boat and what they see in the course of a day (and their meditations on joining the navy in the first place). It's partially based on real life conversations that Watt had with his father and partially based on his own life and applying different things that had happened to the narrative nature of the tracks and over the course of 15 different ones, he manages to pull everything off brilliantly. While Watt is stellar on bass as usual, he also receives some amazing work in the form of Nels Cline on guitar and Stephen Hodges on drums to round out the trio.
The first track "In The Engine Room" starts out with a rumble of bass before it drops off to nothing but Watt singing a cappella. With his somewhat grizzled voice, it fits perfectly and it sounds like the updated version of a sea shanty song when the actual instrumentation drops and rocks out. As with other songs on the release, they even make use of subtle sound effects to help round out the feeling of the ocean and the things that would be going on within the boat. "Red Bluff" is a touching track about how his father signed up to join the navy, while "The Bluejackets' Manual" is a totally balls-out punk rock track about surviving boot camp and the subsequent comradery. That's not even the half of it, though, as tracks like "Pedro Bound!" and "Topsiders" perfectly capture spontinaety of shore leave and seeing deck level crew after climbing up from the engine room. On the former, Watt shines on bass, while Cline goes crazy on wah-wah guitar on the latter. "No One Says Old Man (To The Old Man)" is a quiet, rumbling track that shows a quiet regard for an old crewman while "Fireman Hurley" has guitar work by Cline that would make any Dave Matthews fan melt.
I'm not sure what it is about the ocean that inspires such great albums (see Ocean Songs by the Dirty Three or The Sea And The Bells by the Rachels also), but Watt has managed to create something touching, funny, and altogether interesting with the concept of Contemplating The Engine Room. Granted, it's a ton different than either of the above mentioned albums, but it proves that the one time punk rocker still has it. In regards to his comments that it's a punk rock opera, I'd actually like to see it done that way. It'd rank right up there with Tommy if only stupid reviewers like me didn't miss it the first time around.