On the surface, Mike Watt couldn't do anything more at odds with his past than release a "punk-rock opera," but that's how he's billing his second solo album, Contemplating the Engine Room (Columbia). As the bass player for the legendary Minutemen, Watt vowed to always "jam econo," whereas the phrase "rock opera" brings to mind sprawling, baroque beasts like the Who's Tommy. But Contemplating the Engine Room is built on the same musical directness and genuine personal investment that endeared the Minutemen and Watt's next band, Firehose, to their fans. On the new record Watt (whose slightly strained, throaty voice is light-years from operatic) delivers all his own lyrics for the first time; as a result, the album's not as slick as his 1994 solo debut, Ball-Hog or Tugboat?, which was sung mostly by a giant cast of indie-rock all-stars, but it's far more coherent. The awfully convoluted concept is a very personal connection between playing in a band and working in the engine room of a naval vessel, and Watt's occasionally impenetrable lyrics are strewn with references to the Minutemen, his hometown of San Pedro, California, and his seafaring father. Joined by jazz-rock guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Stephen Hodges (who's played with Tom Waits and the James Harman Band), Watt performs with the sort of terse and edgy immediacy that hasn't been heard in his work since before Minutemen vocalist D. Boon's untimely death back in 1985. In fact, the lucid, tender "Boilerman" may be Watt's first significant musical reckoning with that loss. Cline's currently busy with the Geraldine Fibbers, so Watt's touring trio features Hodges along with Joe Baiza (of Saccharine Trust and Universal Congress Of) on guitar. A longtime Watt chum from their SST days, Baiza can only increase the resonance of the new material. Heroic Doses, a new band led by former 5ive Style guitarist Billy Dolan, opens. Friday, 10 PM, Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee; 773-489-3160. PETER MARGASAK
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Marty Lyon.