PATRICK WATSON CD release at the Drake (1050 Queen West), Wednesday (September 27). $10. 416-531-5042, 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
Listening to Patrick Watson's music , you get the feeling you're in the middle of a movie.
Not in the typical demographically chosen and strategically sequenced sense of prepackaged soundtrack compilations, or even in the way that the most emotionally overwrought pop songs filtering through earphones can set the tone as you play a role in the film of your life.
Hearing Watson's songs - living, breathing, yawning organisms that stretch and morph, coming at you from all sides in waves of shimmering keyboard, gouged-out noise, mind-warping rhythms and otherworldly Buckleyesque vocals - you lapse into a semi-synesthesiac state that feels like you're watching what you hear projected on an imaginary screen.
"All of us in the band love films," offers Watson, keyboard-pounding singer for the Montreal band that bears his name. "I can't write without a story or a picture running through my head. I think all of us approach making music as storytelling, not songwriting."
"But in terms of the cinematic aspect," interrupts guitarist Simon Angell, who's been playing with Watson since the mid-90s, when the two did their requisite Montreal-musician stint in a ska band (the delightfully titled Gangster Politics), "if you go to see a film, the music's not gonna be all metal or all country or all anything. It'll move from place to place and genre to genre. Because we're coming from so many different places within the band, all those styles and influences are gonna fight their way out in the music."
Some see the band Patric Watson as dream pop, though the jagged edges and Möbius-looped compositions are many degrees removed from hook- and-chorus-based shoegazey 4AD fare. (Watson claims they "try to make hooks, but we suck at it. We're much better at nets. You catch more fish that way.") The fractured arrangements of spiralling guitar and strings make you think of psychedelia, though the bandleader's classical background means the challenging works of Ravel and Satie filter through in dynamic ways.
Factor in Watson the man's vocals, a slightly froggy white-boy soulful choirboy warble, along with virtuosic, spastic rhythms and it's hard to pinpoint precisely what you're hearing.
Watson himself, who brings a background in sound design and visual collaboration to the table, has given up trying to explain what the fuck it is Patrick Watson are attempting to do. Instead, he lists a handful of artists they've opened for - Feist, Lee Ranaldo, Philip Glass, James Brown (yes, that James Brown), hoping that if a listener can figure out what kind of music connects those vastly divergent sounds, they're halfway there.
It's a good thing to keep in mind when approaching the new album by the four-piece (which also includes bassist Mishka Stein and drummer Robbie Kuster), Close To Paradise, the inaugural release on Montreal's new Secret City label, which is itself a bricolage endeavour launched as an offshoot of jazz-centric Justin Time Records.
Lush and expansive, Close To Paradise maps the geography of where it was recorded, from the quaint corner stores of the Quebec countryside to the burning trash can fires and late-night lofts of NYC, which echo through the ballad Mr. Tom, inspired by a crazy punk painter the group hung out with in the Big Apple.
But if you're hoping to hear a tune based abstractly on the experience of touring with the Godfather of Soul, you're outta luck - at least till the next record. Patrick Watson wrapped up their James Brown stint long after recording was completed. Amazingly, though, they managed to win over legions of European funk fans with their genre-defying assault.
Frontman Watson claims he came back a changed man.
"It was an amazing experience to see a whole older generation of musicians and how they approach the stage. When they get to the gig they always have their suits on; when they leave the gig they always have their suits on. They have a pride about the stage I've never encountered in the younger generation of musicians. They do a prayer before each gig asking God to give them the power to put on the best show ever.
"People think funk bands are just, like, super-funky entertainment," he continues, "but it's animalistic. It's got a depth and darkness to it. After the tour I watched old footage of James Brown and could see how it's not just an 'I feel good' kinda funk. He's in a totally different place."