Patrick Watson – Wooden Arms
Secret City (2009)
By Aaron Burkhalter
Finding a competent, enjoyable and eccentric musician in Montreal these days is like finding a liberal in Seattle who refuses to shop at Walmart. The vast collection of musical Canucks are not so much riding on the coattails of the first breakthrough Canadian acts — say, Arcade Fire — as they are swept in a massive outpouring of music that North America consumes with glee.
While similar movements have their standouts and spokespeople — your basic Nirvanas being the definer of a sound — I mostly find myself overwhelmed by the sheer amount of musicianship coming out of Montreal these days.
For the musician it must be more difficult. Patrick Watson‘s sophomore release “Patrick Watson and the Wooden Arms” will likely suffer broad strokes of comparison to his compatriots. The tragedy is people won’t see the leaps and bounds the musician has made between the reasonably adept but all too Beatles-esque “Close to Paradise” and this more mature and textured second album.
Watson coats his music in messy, three-dimensional globs of paint. By splattering too much paint onto the canvass, he eliminates the canvass altogether through dense, lush and eccentric orchestration, implementing every type of instrument to backdrop otherwise minimal piano compositions.
So when tracks like “Wooden Arms” could be easily dismissed as sounding to similar to Basia Bulat’s “Little Waltz” or “Beijing” as sounding too close to a number of pieces by Final Fantasy, it ignores the fact that Watson’s skill comes not just through his songwriting, but the atmosphere in which the written song lies.
The lyrics on “Beijing” phrase the style of his music perfectly as he sings “It’s the sound of the city.”
The strings lay an organized, even sensical, architecture. But a junk-man’s orchestra sullies metropolitan vision into an eccentric, sonic downtown. The strings are interrupted with the swat of a drum, the fart of a horn and the abrasive pluck of odd, metallic wire.
Those beats, plunks and off-color harmonies add ostentatious personalities walking the streets of an otherwise well-built and conventionally crafted symphony.
The combination creates a harmony between the conventional orchestral-sound of Tom Waits’ early years with Waits’ orchestra-averse later works, finding a common ground between the sweet, pleasing-to-the-ear production and the startling eccentricities.
Thankfully the album doesn’t overwhelm the listener in sonic cacophony. The songs enter lightly with welcome build-ups, and also allow some of the lightest touches to shine through.
“Down at the Beach” explodes with dominating bass and a mess of percussion, but also quiets to allow the lightest ticks and tocks to mingle with the piano for a bit. The opener, “Firewood” waits 15 seconds to even be audible, and a near minute before the actual song comes in, laying the ground work for an album the cares as much about the atmosphere as it does the melody and lyrics. – (7.5/10)
Watson performs with his band, the Wooden Arms, at the Crocodile Cafe May 12. For more information on the tour and album, visit www.patrickwatson.net.