Tuesday, April 14, 2009
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Two years ago, like most of the world, I was relatively new to Patrick Watson. I really enjoyed Close to Paradise, but was shocked that he got a Juno nod and was absolutely floored when he grabbed the coveted Polaris Prize over names like Feist, The Besnard Lakes, Plaskett and Arcade Fire. Now, two years later Patrick Watson is a name on everyone’s tongue and his upcoming Secret City release - Wooden Arms - is one of the most anticipated of ’09 in the Canadian scene.
One listen to Wooden Arms and it's obvious that the last two years have been kind to Watson and his band. They’ve traveled the world, taking influence and inspiration from the exotic locales they visited and talented musicians with which they’ve played. It’s so easy to throw out easy qualifiers for this record – more mature, Canadian Radiohead (his falsetto begs the Yorke comparison at times) – but they make light of the success of Wooden Arms and the consistent collection of songs Watson delivers. More importantly, they take away from the way Watson blends influences and his own originality. Atmospheric and orchestral tones are constant, as is the clanking percussion the band is fond of, but the subtleties show the band using a much broader palette.
Percussion and a patient builds help epics like Tracy's Waters and Traveling Salesman surge forward, but the whimsy and amazement of Beijing helps you see the new world as Patrick sees it and offer up another side of Watson. The banjo riff and female vocals of the New Orleans Jazz fest ready Big Bird in a Small Cage are incredibly pleasant, but the track is more than just a folk song. Obviously visiting the area affected Watson, and this track combines the classic sounds with his love of echoing harmonies and atmosphere. The required crutches of comparing his voice to Devandra or his style to talents like Buckley or Drake are no longer needed, as Watson makes huge strides in defining his place in music.
Down on the Beach effortlessly glides forward, but never climaxes and as a result the tribal drums feel more natural and soothing, like meditation. A more cinematic vibe drives Where the Wild Things Are, a track that seems tailor made to fit into a scene of Spike Jonze’s adaptation of the classic tale, and Watson handles both nicely. The interesting thing is that with all the layers and the terrific production on Wooden Arms, there are lots of instances where Watson and his band invoke the less is more approach. The gentle crescendo of the piano never overpowers the simple arrangement and emotion they create with the strings on Hommage, and Man Like You shows the confidence of a front man playing a straight ahead track.
Basically, Watson is in a weird "no win, no lose" situation. He had carte blanche to try whatever he wanted on this release, but also had to be ready for backlash from fans that know him more for an award and his opening tour slots AND fans that will accuse him of selling out now that he has some success. Remarkably, he created a record that will appeal to casual fans, but took enough risks – like a seven minute closing track that meanders constantly - and showed enough growth to keep critics quiet as well.