Il Sogno Del Marinaio Canto Secondo (Clenched Wrench) –
I love Mike Watt. As a musician and a composer, he takes chances few of his contemporaries would. While the rock cognescenti gives cred (justifiably) to his first band project, Minutemen, it seems fIREHOSE is viewed as some kind of bastard child. I wholeheartedly disagree. Which is why, when the second “opera” by the trio Il Sogno Del Marinaio (Andrea Belfi – drums, Stefano Pilia – guitars, and Watt on bass) opens with the acerbic “Animal Farm”, it feels like a welcome return: indeed, I will go on record as saying Sogno Secondo feels like the lost fIREHOSE album that should have followed 1989’s fROMOHIO (the last indie enterprise by the band before making the questionable leap to the majors). Watt’s modus operandi has always been indie – I mean the man practically spearheaded the DIY movement in the halcyon days of 80’s rock. And from the opening bars of this disc, it is clear protégés Belfi and Pilia are no strangers to the fIREHOSE catalog: there are points where Belfi’s percussion is wonderfully reminiscent of George Hurley’s (as on “Alain”, or the unhurried yet variegated changes he employs on “Skinny Cat), while Belfi takes a more intricate approach to the guitar lines Ed Crawford played back in the day.
And when these three lock into an improvisational groove, the results are a joy to behold. The lyrics, being penned by each member, bring a intriguing cohesiveness to the mix: “Nano’s Waltz” is vintage Watt (“Step right up, closer/you get bigger, closer/A small step for you might be a big step for Nano”) played against a carnivalesque melody that could easily be inserted into 1987’s if’n, and be totally at home, while Andrea Belfi gives a chilling German recitation on “Auslander” alongside his spiraling guitar filigrees before settling into a gentle jazz vibe – then jumps back to a wailing classic rock solo worthy of Dave Gilmour. On some previous outings (both solo and with his other bands) Watt’s eclecticism could get the better of him, at the expense of song construction, but on this disc, not only does everything mesh seamlessly, but even the application of varied genres within the context of a single tune brings surprising revelations that sound mesmerizing.
Pilia’s “Mountain Top” finds the trio again gelling in an almost synchronic fashion, as he sings “So many roads to ride the storm/So many clouds above your head/And many seas to sail…….to death.” And here, as on so many tracks, Belfi lets his chops shine through, without overpowering the rest of the band – from surf-guitar licks to swelling blues lines, jazz fusion passages to frenetic, post-punk crescendos that rise and fall before dissolving into an entirely different space. If the trio weren’t so tight and their chemistry not so apparent, the results could have become a mixed bag. Instead, Sogno Secondo is a mixed bag in the most commendable sense of the word.
But perhaps the most musically transcendent moment occurs toward the end, on the brilliant “Us In Their Land.” Starting off with an inspired free-form rock jam, it slowly picks up speed, then shifts into the quietest, prettiest passage Watt has ever recorded: a wistful guitar line, tapping cymbal and simmering bass underscore Pilia’s poetic longings (“Take my breath into the land/Pool among a sailor’s dream/Swimming swift, a split of sea/Bird of morning sun/Skies and clouds above…..”) reversing the soft verse/hard chorus paradigm. But then, would I expect anything less than the unexpected from Watt and Co.? Here they deliver an indelible piece of aural exquisiteness that will surely land on my “Top Ten” list this year.
Philip Selway Weatherhouse (Bella Union) – On Familial, Selway’s solo debut, the Radiohead drummer made the most of his tuition as part of Neil Finn‘s 7 Worlds Collide project, and released an understated, satisfying collection of indie folk-rock and artsy, Baroque-inspired pop. At the same time however, I wondered why it seemed that, at least on a musical level, Selway was trying to distance himself from any sonic trapping that would invite comparisons to Radiohead. On one level, I totally get it – Selway wanted to showcase the songwriting skills he honed under the tutelage of Finn (Split Enz, Crowded House), but while the music did show a different side to his palette, Philip Selway‘s voice at times sounded tentative, even timorous.
Weatherhouse, by contrast, shows Selway feeling more at home with himself and his songwriting, daring to step out of the shadows as a folk-pop troubadour, inviting welcome comparisons to Nick Drake and even colleague Thom Yorke, as on the haunting “Ghosts” and “Coming Up For Air.” Though his delivery is considerably lighter than Yorke’s downbeat approach on the latter, it is no less dramatic: “It’s taken ages to find a way, but I made it through/These are the days, this is the place where I can roam/Took a long time coming round, but I’m still standing here…..are you waiting?” You can hear Finn’s influence on Selway’s songcraft, as gentle washes of piano and guitar linger on Selway’s reverb-drenched intonation.
“Around Again” follows, clearly one the highlights on this disc, where Selway begins to let his Radiohead leanings shine through – from the marvelous layered percussion to the insinuating bass line and dreamy vibraphone, Selway updates the sonic backdrop of Amnesiac‘s “Dollars And Cents” (a tune he likely co-wrote) while detailing a dead end relationship: “Take your time, I can wait/We’ve been round this all before, and nothing has changed/If there was a better life, I know you’d be shying away…” Selway has also allowed the orchestral touches to be more prominent here: the swelling strings during the bridge on “Around Again” and “Let It Go” add majestic nuance, while enchanting harmonies and impactful piano charts culminate into a Spector-ish wall of sound.
The musical odyssey reaches a climax on lead single “It Will End In Tears.” Opening with a processional backdrop of snare and forlorn piano, Selway sings “Welcome back, unfurl the flags/I’m not bitter/ Well, hey for you/You stole the show/Back from the cold, did you miss me?/Bet you stayed in all the time…” – his voice transmitting a sardonic kind of resignation prior to letting down his guard for a stark confession: “Remember me? I used to be something, didn’t I? But it’s not my time now, I’ll be leaving/Stay inside, I hate goodbyes….” Sad strings and an angelic chorale punctuate the mournful refrain “It will end in tears….and I wont be sorry.” Not since the resplendence of Odessa-era Bee Gees has there been such a gorgeous, cinematically perfect ballad captured on record. Weatherhouse rivals Beck’s Morning Phase, both in terms of tender introspection and euphonious atmosphere. GRADE: A