Album: Mike Watt, "Hyphenated-Man" (Original Recordings Group)
"Now, what came first," Mike Watt asks on the lead track from "Hyphenated-Man," the punk legend's latest solo album - "the thought or the man?" Even longtime fans might still scratch their heads looking for an answer to the chicken/egg riddle that is Watt's entire career.
What is not a puzzle, however, is the life and vitality the now-52-year-old Watt breathes into his latest creation. Cracking the whip on 30 ephemeral songs -- only two of them break the two-minute mark -- in just over 45 brisk and bracing minutes, "Hyphenated-Man" puts Watt back in the same hallowed "econo" ground he explored so memorably more than 25 years ago with his bandmates in San Pedro's seminal Minutemen -- and with nearly the same force behind his punches. Age often reveals character, it's been said; in Watt, it reveals a fathomless depth of muscle still waiting in reserve to be flexed.
In the album's liner notes, Watt admits his "third opera" (following 1997's "Contemplating the Engine Room" and 2004's "The Secondman's Middle Stand") lacks the traditional narrative structure of a rock-and-roll concept album, and mostly represents fractured moments in time: "a mirror from just inside my head -- right in this middle-age moment of mine -- was then shattered into thirty pieces and then each piece stuffed in the head to show a piece of my state of mind (or out-of-mind) as of now," he writes.
Each song seems to tell a story of a different "hyphenated-man," with each tale nominally part of a larger song that appears to exist only tell a story about men-who-are-hyphenated things. Watts describes "Lute-and-dagger-man," for instance, as "green tunic, red tights, lute slung behind your back, now dagger shinin' bright," and then chides him, "what were you thinking? Can't see your face."
"Wheel-bound-man" might well be about Watt himself: "I think I've learned that life's for learnin' as I'm goin' through my trips -- me on the wheel as it's turnin'." The songs lean on Watt's lifelong influences -- notes as disparate as Captain Beefheart and Blue Oyster Cult emerge like fogcutters through San Pedro Harbor -- while remaining singular to the man's odd and uniquely "Watt" eclecticism.
Watt says he wrote all 30 of the disc's songs on his late Minutemen compatriot D. Boon's Fender Telecaster, and the results are the closest the San Pedro native and current Stooges bassist has come to recapturing his old band's sound and structural polemics, aided by guitarist Tom Watson and drummer Raul Morales (the Missingmen), his most capable and flexible sidemen in years.
Although it lacks the lightning component -- Boon's acid political tongue and Ornette Colemanesque jazz/punk guitar showmanship -- to Watt's ominous and ever-present thunder stick, "Hyphenated-Man" returns Watt to the forefront of his own sound, forged in heat some 35 years ago in a little town south of Los Angeles. The riddle persists, but so does the man.