Graded on a Curve:
Il Sogno del Marinaio,
Canto Secondo

The second full-length by Il Sogno del Marinaio, an international entity comprising two Italians and an American, features a fresh yet familiar aural breeze combining progressive rock’s instrumental adeptness and expansionist possibilities with a lean punk-derived lack of malarkey. That the Yank is Mike Watt demands note, but it’s far from the only reason to investigate Canto Secondo, which is freshly available on CD/vinyl/digital via the Clenchedwrench label.

It’s important to respect this trio’s choice of handle, for it’s just one more example in the enduring tradition of naming that underscores the struggle for creative equality inherent to Rock’s communicative structure (furthermore, the Italian moniker translates into English as The Sailor’s Dream). But as stated in the paragraph above, a third of this unit does consist of the great bassist Mike Watt.

Another point in the triangle is guitarist Stefano Pilia, an Italian acquaintance of Watt who had the fortitude to ask a man significantly his senior and of considerable reputation to form a band with his drumming countryman Andrea Belfi. This they did in 2009, commencing a short tour almost directly afterward and recording that first LP between the shows.

La Busta Gialla didn’t come out until January of ’13, and it wasn’t really hard to understand why. While not aptly described as Experimental, a key component in its prog-influenced sensibility is indeed experimentation, as was the on-the-fly looseness that can only be transcended by the confluence of heavyweight talents.

For starters, Pilia has played a crucial role in avant-rock outfit 3/4HadBeenEliminated, and he and Belfi have additionally filled out another threesome with a noteworthy American, namely David Grubbs (formerly of Squirrel Bait, Bastro, Gastr Del Sol, Red Krayola, solo etc). And Watt’s background is extensive and renowned.

Obviously not everybody knows of his prior breakthroughs though, so in service of enlightenment here’s a small recap. Unless something unprecedented happens, Mike Watt’s biggest artistic achievement will stand as his participation in one of the finest rock acts ever assembled and arguably the greatest of all US punk bands, San Pedro, CA’s Minutemen.

The reasoning behind the work of drummer George Hurley, late guitarist D. Boon, and Watt vindicating such high esteem is multifaceted. Along with a hard-earned distillation of everything that was good in the impulse to Rock, they were also inclusionary and forward-thinking during a punk era in hot pursuit of stagnation through close-mindedness and redundancy. Much has been made of their indebtedness to Richard Hell, Blue Öyster Cult, and Wire, but another overt influence that continues to define their legacy is Creedence Clearwater Revival.

CCR’s Green River contains the well-known “Wrote a Song for Everyone,” and that tune’s title provides a fair summation of the Minutemen’s raison d’être; steering wide of any phony populism, Hurley Boon and Watt flourished through constant practice and by simply walking it like they talked it in a decade where doing so was a revolutionary gesture (it’s remained so ever since).

It’s a path Watt has traveled ceaselessly post-Minutemen; it’s all music for everyone, though the size and type of audience varies. More ears will groove to fIREHOSE, the star-studded ’95 Ball-Hog or Tugboat? and his spot in the revamped Stooges than will dig Dos, his long-time bass duo with Kira Roessler or the 2010/2011 “punk opera” with the Missingmen hyphenated man. But in all likelihood the audience for those two projects exceeds those for Spielgusher, his collab with hero writer Richard Meltzer or the improv-rock/spoken word excursion of supergroup Unknown Instructors.

And while the ratio of success found on La Busta Gialla was impressive given its circumstances, it did register as a major artist in a minor mode, or perhaps better said as three dudes inhabiting a working context. Canto Secondo, Il Sogno del Marinaio’s sophomore effort, emerges from eight days of practice and recording, and connects as a fully realized affair retaining elements of the debut’s personality. Intrinsically linked to the performance stage, they follow this LP by dishing out 53 US gigs in as many days (check local listings for date and time in your area).

“Animal Farm Tango” begins the album with a lonely military snare quickly met by the immediately recognizable tones of Watt’s voice. An occasional yet distinctive vocalist, as he speaks Belfi’s plainly Orwellian lyrics his manner is almost Ken Nordine-ish and is rendered even warmer by its placement in the mix.

Across the years some have quibbled over the strength of Watt’s singing; I fall on the affirmative side of the situation, though I’ll add that the eclecticism he displays on Canto Secondo is preferable to the more spoken-word oriented flavor evidenced on portions of the earlier release. But Watt isn’t the only voice here; interestingly, in contrast to the highly finessed post-production of La Busta Gialla, the single aspect not captured by Bruno Germano at his Vacuum Studio in Bologna was the vocals, which all the participants mailed to him later.

And Watt’s not the only top-notch player on the record; had there been a tangible gap in acumen or issues of temperament or communication, it’s clear that Canto Secondo wouldn’t exist. “Animal Farm Tango” wastes little time in entering a labyrinthine instrumental weave, at differing moments evincing uptempo motion, less-hurried jazz-tinged abstraction and a sturdy throb where Pilia briefly gets off like a post-rock Robert Fripp.

A key word in that scenario is briefly. The opener is one of just two songs here breaking five minutes, producing selections densely packed with the vibrant comingling of form and content. For instance, “Alain” finds them sliding snuggly into a tastefully heavy power trio mold growing Progressively jazzier in a succinct span; I’ll admit the track’s initial groove could’ve lasted for a while.

In part due to Watt’s somewhat children’s song-esque lyrical delivery in the dance meter of the title, “Nanos’ Waltz” is one of the album’s more unusual numbers. Segueing nicely into a midsection reminiscent of the Soft Machine, toward the end the guitar fleetingly recalls D. Boon’s on Double Nickels on the Dime’s “Maybe Partying Will Help.”

The majority of instrumental “Skinny Cat” is a deft, lightly funky fabric likely to please the math rock contingent as a crescendo lead by Belfi’s drums brings a false ending and a meditative denouement. “Mountain Top,” the first of Canto Secondo’s pieces to exhibit Pilia’s vocals, is a pretty, forceful and quietly intricate composition, and “Il Sogno del Fienile” (translates to “The Barn’s Dream,” referencing the locale of the record’s making) returns Watt to the mic. Reminding me a bit of his infrequent singing duties in fIREHOSE, it holds a more complex musical constitution.

“Auslander” reveals the language of Germany; the drummer, a former resident Verona Italy, moved to Berlin three years ago. As Belfi’s words relate the tale of an outsider wandering Berlin on a cold day, his syllables alternate with hefty but lithe trio action. From there “Stucazz?!!” presents a crisp slice of melodiousness as just a hint of art-rock bubbles under the surface. Speaking of which, “Sailor Blues” throws a shot of Beefheart into the stomping titular equation; like Little Walter it mellows down easy to gradually rebuild intensity as Pilia knocks off some terrific soloing.

“Us in Their Land” closes the LP with a bang of hard-rockin’ prog. In the end Canto Secondo highlights the abilities of Pilia and Belfi while emphasizing the growth of the union. It’s also a fine addition to Watt’s shelf, though newcomers to that ample discography should probably start with the Minutemen and move ahead.

Fans appreciating how Watt continually pushes against his personal boundaries to further fine-tune a rock aesthetic that’s increasingly rare will definitely want to hear Canto Secondo. It improves upon the template established by its predecessor in every way.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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