Adventures In Your Own Backyard Patrick Watson (Secret City/ EMI)
Patrick Watson's melodic new album begins with auspicious elegance – an exquisite tumbling piano motif, as if the notes were played on diamonds instead of ivory. He sings, in his airy tenor, about needing a light left on in the wild, a beacon "because I'm coming in a little blind." Lighthouse, that opening track, then builds unexpectedly toward a brassy spaghetti-western landscape – Ennio Morricone is waving Watson in for a landing. The song shimmers to a close, and now we can all open our eyes.
Adventures In Your Own Backyard, the Montreal singer-pianist's fourth album, seems to be a homecoming. His previous two albums – 2009's Wooden Arms and 2006's Polaris Prize-winning Close to Paradise – were flights, escapes and whimsy. This new one is the reverse: Watson isn't leading us away on a trip, he's drawing us in closer.
And the shift couldn't be more subtle.
In a recent interview, Watson, a Debussy and Ravel enthusiast with an active musical mind, said he wishes to give his listeners goose-bumps, and that he wanted to make something "really touching, using whatever tools that allow you to do that." His tools include a piano, his voice, a variety of guests, sometimes a mellotron, and, as always, his fellow cosmonauts (guitarist Simon Angell, bassist Mishka Stein, and the imaginative drummer and marimba player Robbie Kuster).
The result is a dreamy bath of chamber-pop and fancy cabaret, less clacky without the kitchen-utensil or bike-wheel percussion of Wooden Arms and slightly more grounded than Close to Paradise.
Quiet Crowd, a gentle but persistent request, is possibly the most direct song yet from Watson. Against a deft cinematic backdrop of curly flutes (from Colin Stetson), sweet strings and a soft line of "ba-ba badump-bump ba-ba" vocal percussion, Watson asks that the too-silent majority speak up before it's too late: "While everybody's walking their own way through the quiet crowd, all thinking the same old things, if they only knew." It reminds me of the Black Crowes' Sting Me, the frustrated rally call of "if you feel like a riot, don't you deny it." But where the Crowes shouted and boogied, Watson employs a queer ambience and a pretty melody, directed to a "Mr. Quiet who's got so much to say."
There are snippets of things on Morning Sheets: A quivering guitar riff at the intro, then a bit of bold instrumentation in the style of Serge Gainsbourg's Histoire de Melody Nelson, and later psychedelic-rock moves perhaps inspired by fellow Montrealers Plants and Animals.
You wanted stripped down? Words In the Fire is an acoustic number written off the cuff at a campfire in Northern Quebec, Watson told an audience last week at Toronto's Glenn Gould Studio, where Adventures In Your Own Backyard was unveiled. It might be existential, or perhaps a thought about the importance of living in the moment, or, again, a reminder to say what you have to say: "Lean our heavy heads, of the weight of the things that are left unsaid / Don't worry about it now, 'cause in the morning they will just be ashes on the ground."
In the end, Watson staying close to home is no drag; he's still the opposite of shackled. His head is in the clouds, but his feet are on the ground – just as close to paradise as ever.
Patrick Watson plays Montreal's Theatre Corona, April 15 to 17.
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