“Patrick Watson” is somewhat of a möbius strip. The name refers to: 1) the man, singer-songwriter Patrick Watson from Montreal, Quebec who formed 2) the eponymous band. Note that the former is not the “Patrick Watson Band”, just “Patrick Watson”. Before you roll your eyes and assume a massive ego is at play here on the part of the frontman, let Watson explain:
“How it started was that originally, some years ago, we were asked to do some music to accompany a book of photography. Having built a CD to go with all these images we thought it would be fun to do it live and it worked really well and people freaked. We didn’t really think we were gonna be a band at that point but over a period of five or six years we got to a point where it became very difficult to change the name. It was difficult to find a name that suited us especially as we had such an eclectic music style. The second album was a kind of middle point, and now here we are at this third album which is much more song orientated.”
Kinda charming, right? I’m not going to fault someone for simply going with the flow and not correcting what is really only a minor PR misstep. Though I do wish there was some differentiation between the man and the band, especially for the sake of the other musicians who have proved themselves to be more than a simple backing group. But, hey, if it works for them I will (temporarily) let this issue out of my teeth. Besides, it’s not like the group chose a purposely stupid name from the start to be funny that now just makes them look like a bunch of immature douche-bags (ahem, Limp Bizkit, Insane Clown Posse, and Hoobastank). Moving on.
The signature sound of Patrick Watson is dreamy orchestral pop – or “orchestral indie rock” if you prefer to sound cooler – known for its deeply intricate sound layering and inclinations towards experimentation. The music has often been compared to such artists as Nick Drake, Pink Floyd, Jeff Buckley, and Arcade Fire; but I tend to think that last comparison is just lazy and based mostly on the fact that both make good music and both are from Canada. Arcade Fire creates tunes that are incredibly thoughtful and intelligent, but with a more defined rock edge. They are meatier and pack more of punch. But that is not to say that Watson doesn’t approach his music with an equal amount of thoughtfulness or that his songs do not carry weight. He does and they certainly do; but it there are many roads to Rome. And when it comes to Patrick Watson, the result is music that feels rather unearthly.
The most gleaming of gems in the Patrick Watson (band) is, arguably, Watson’s own voice. There is no other way to express it than to say his voice is like that of a bird (Please forgive the cliche. I hate myself.). It gently croons, it quavers, it flutters, it aches. But when I say “bird”, I do not mean to imply that the music crosses over into the kind of saccharine territory where you half-expect a cartoon blue bird to fly in the window and gently land upon your samovar of tea. It doesn’t. Rather, his voice is at times haunting, at others simply enchanting; and it is a powerful instrument critical to defining Watson’s ethereal sound.
But that is just “the man with the band” and I would be remiss if I let the rest of the group go unsung here. It’s worth noting that this is more than a simple collective of backing musicians (despite the eponymous name). The trained group of musicians mesh unbelievably well musically and there some mad skills at work here. They come courtesy of Simon Angell (guitar), Robbie Kuster (percussion), and Mishka Stein (bass). In fact, in 2007, the band was nominated New Artist of the Year (2007) at the Juno Awards. Additionally, they have appeared at the SXSW Festival in Austin and performed with the likes of Phillip Glass and the late James Brown.
In September 2007, Patrick Watson’s second group album, Close to Paradise, was awarded the prestigious Polaris Music Prize (it’s a Canadian thing. Look it up), beating out the likes of Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible and Feist’s The Reminder. The next album, 2009’s Wooden Arms was a finalist for the same prize. And Watson’s fourth studio album, Adventures in Your Own Backyard (out May 1st in the U.S.) is already generating a great deal of buzz. While speaking about the album with Spinner, Watson said that while his past work has been admittedly more complex, this forthcoming record marks a step towards greater simplicity:
“We just wanted to nail 12 gorgeous tunes…It’s just more mature in terms of arrangements and it gives the listener more time to digest.”
I’ve listened to the new album and it is a really nice step forward for a band in the process of maturing its sound. It’s not my place to review it here, but I will say that this is an album definitely worth your time. Adventures in your Own Backyard is set be released next week in the U.S., but for a limited time you can listen to a free live stream of it here. Thanks, NPR!
The songs of Patrick Watson are often gorgeous and haunting, but I will concede that they may not be for people in need of more musical heft, as these are tunes firmly rooted in in the camp of sensitive-guy-singer/songwriter. Even I will admit that I often have problems when it comes to over-exposure to music of said variety. None more so than when it feels like that sensitivity is one-dimensional or blatant audience pandering; as in the case of James Blunt, who makes me want to punch him in the face and tell the dude to Just. Man. Up. But thankfully, Watson is nowhere near J-Blunt-ification, as Watson’s music is not whiny. And while there is not as much of an overall artistic (or editing) focus guiding Patrick Watson as strongly as an artist like the great Bon Iver (a man who is laser sharp in both his artistic vision and execution), he still creates beautiful songs that wash over you and get under your skin. In a good way, not like a fungus.
Furthermore, what Watson has going for him is a great deal of artistic intelligence that helps him in exercising just the right amount of musical experimentation. The result is that each song effortlessly unfolds like it’s own organically layered short story that you want to follow to it’s conclusion. And while these are the kinds of tunes where you can’t actually make out the lyrics until at least the third or fourth listen – or you simply cheat and look them up on a place like *cue plug* SongLyrics.com – they still manage to touch an emotional nerve.