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MIKE WATT (Buy CDs by this artist)
Ball-Hog or Tugboat? (Columbia) 1994
Contemplating the Engine Room (Columbia) 1997

A blue-collar hero in an art-school world, bassist and working-joe conceptualist Mike Watt has been a titanic presence on the avant-rock scene since the dawn of the '80s — when he, guitarist D Boon and drummer George Hurley formed the Minutemen. That spectacularly prolific (a dozen records in just five years) band's heady mélange of skittery avant-garde rhythms, burly guitar assays and agit- prop sloganeering was as revelatory a development as any in punk rock's two-decade history. When Boon was killed in a van crash in December 1985, Watt considered abdicating his station, but he and Hurley were coaxed into perseverance by an Ohio-bred Minutemen fan, Ed Crawford, thus propagating fIREHOSE.

When that band wound down, the proud resident of San Pedro, California reverted to his long-held position that the bassist — what he's often called "the lame guy's position" — was meant to be heard and not seen, which prompted the assembly of the promethean posse that appears on his solo debut, Ball-Hog or Tugboat? On the cast- of-dozens disc, Watt does his best to avoid the spotlight, ceding vocal chores to disciples as varied as Eddie Vedder (whose straight-faced reading of the anti-rockist "Against the 70's" vindicates him from Pearl Jam's excesses) and Evan Dando (an appropriate choice for the loopy-yet- loving "Piss-Bottle Man," which Watt wrote in tribute to his road-weary father). To Watt's credit, he never lets things degenerate into the sort of jam-session indolence so common to cronies-in-the-studio packages: even the faithful cover of Funkadelic's "Maggot Brain" (a chance for J Mascis to pump up the volume) maintains a clear sense of purpose. It's a dizzying compendium of hipster jive, balls-to-the- wall rock and asides like Bikini Kill leader Kathleen Hanna's impassioned spoken-word piece explaining why she won't appear on the album (a boys' club atmosphere and the presence of an alleged rapist). Still, the titular question posed by Ball-Hog or Tugboat? makes it clear that Mike Watt will always be the latter — the kind of man- machine that rock needs to get it out of its axis-bending ruts.

[David Sprague]
   See also Sonic Youth