Human Reaction LP
(Big Ego Records)
While Mike Watt’s early career was defined by the bassist’s time with The Minutemen, it can’t be denied that since the end of The Minutemen, Watt has been viewed as a solo entity. That isn’t to say that the bassist hasn’t played with other bands since then (there have been several), just that Watt has stood as very much an individual entity – even when playing with other bands like The Stooges, fireHOSE and Banyan. The reasons why such separation from artist and band have occurred aren’t clear, but that mssv is presented as a single unit (three members in the band) speaks volumes; in this case, no member of the group is pushed forward or had brighter light cast on them – they are a band. Human Reaction seeks to further cement that image in listeners, too; all contributions to this record are equal among the bandmembers, members divide vocal contributions between each other using a “man for the job” approach applied on a song-by-song basis and no one gets presented as the band’s “star” as a result.
As great a return as it might be, listeners may immediately notice that Human Reaction doesn’t open with a grand explosion at all; rather, the first move that the record makes clearly seeks to build a form. The opening moments of “Say What You Gotta Say” see Watt, drummer Stephen Hodges and guitarist Mike Baggetta all enter gently and as a unified team; there doesn’t seem to be a design exactly, and the gradual build of the song feels as though the tape is rolling as mssv just begins to jam. The song’s structure becomes a little more formal when Baggetta steps to the mic and gently delivers lines like, “Somebody tells you what to do/ You think maybe they want to be just like you/ How could you be so fucking wrong/ You never knew a single thing all along.” It feels like a great set up and it is; “Say What You Gotta Say” maintains a consistent tone and tempo thereafter (read: no new forms appear in the composition), but the sound is just so good that listeners will find themselves drawn in and held tightly and they’ll be sorry to see it go when the song ends at the four-minute mark. Even so, after it does let out and Hodges’ snare rolls open “French Road Drifters,” listeners will find themselves remaining in place, expectantly, for more.
It is important to point out the value to Human Reaction that “French Road Drifters” installs in the running of the album’s A-side. The song really takes its time and establishes a consistent rhythm without the benefit of including a vocal performance, but erupts angrily with some excellent caustic squalls on guitar which are guaranteed to widen listeners’ eyes and build tension but, like with “Say What You Gotta Say,” “French Road Drifters” manages to hook listeners well (this time with its instrumental swells) and have listeners bemoaning the brevity of the cut when it fades out. As was the case with “Say What You Gotta Say,” listeners will find themselves waiting eagerly for more when the song closes, but the almost vaudevillian and angular tone which develops early in “Baby Ghost (from the 1900s)” will leave listeners genuinely shocked. The song really stands as a brand apart from the first two cuts and sets a further contrast against the eight-minute monster which both follows it as well as closing the side, “Pillow Talk.”
There is a really evident sense that “Pillow Talk” is an important point in Human Reaction‘s running which has nothing to do with the fact that it’s the closing cut on the album’s A-side. Throughout the song, elements which were focused on elsewhere in the running of Human Reaction‘s A-side – the rolling timbre of Hodges’ drums, Watt’s simple but forceful low end and the almost otherworldly sounds as well as the luscious depth of the guitar sound that Baggetta is so adept at producing get intermingled and tightly interwoven throughout “Pillow Talk,” and the result is as impressive as it is satisfying. The way that the elements were developed and focused on elsewhere on the side feel great when they’re combined as they are on “Pillow Talk” and, when the song reaches its peak about seven minutes in, listeners will be hooked on the results produced by mssv all over again; they know they’ll want to keep the energy that “Pillow Talk” features in the foreground of the second side, even before the needle lifts.
The beauty of Human Reaction‘s B-side is that the energy proves not to be diminished in the moments between when the A-side ended and the B-side began, and so it doesn’t need to be rebuilt. That means the album’s title track can (and does) hit the ground running and showcase many of Mike Watt’s established strengths in the performance (like a sinewy and propulsive bass), and it does exactly that./ Right away, Minutemen vapors aerate in around the edges of “Human Reaction”; the guitars echo D. Boon, in a way, and that manner is followed tightly by Watt’s bass exactly as Minutemen fans would expect. The sound, for those who miss The Minutemen, is absolutely fantastic and, while Baggetta’s vocals (which include mathematical equations, oddly) feel a little like tossed off passages inserted just as placeholders to keep the rhythm (likes like “Don’t want to fight ’cause I don’t want to win” and “Often I question, often I see/ Often I wonder, often I be” sound like they were cribbed from the margins in a high school notebook), but the squirrelly lead guitar figures laced throughout the song are absolutely phenomenal and easily keep listeners engaged right through the close of the song and into “Punk Haiku,” which neglects to actually include any vocals (in counterpoint to the song’s title) but still engages well with some pretty angular passages.
mssv maintains the instrumental excitement which was teased in “Punk Haiku” with “Pity Parody” – which expands on the instrumental developments presented earlier in the album’s running with more grungy guitar passages which sound like a weird but good synthesis of Combustible Edison and the backing score from a Ren & Stimpy cartoon before finally settling down and closing the album’s B-side with “In This Moment.”
Much like “Pillow Talk” did at the end of Human Reaction‘s A-side, “In This Moment” seeks to offer something of a summation of the play which preceded it by including a selection of all of the ideas from previous songs on Human Reaction‘s B-side as well as tightening the proverbial strings to sync them all up. Initially, Watt’s fairly nasal bass weaves neatly through and around Baggetta’s guitar and Hodges’ drums to present a sound which is both subdued and serene before Baggetta steps to the mic to deliver lines that are more spoken than sung and more poetic than lyrical (see, “Scented wind through high Western Juniper/ Like memories of New Mexico, come dancing/ Enchanting whispers around my ear”), and really succeeds at hypnotizing listeners early. The cut never really increases in speed from there, but holds true to the tone and form where it began – and that proves to be surprising as the song begins to fade to a very extended close which finds listeners there was more; when the song does end and the needle lifts from the side, listeners’ first instinct will be to go back and replay “In This Moment,” and then go back to the A-side of the album and begin the whole journey again.
Stepping back from it and taking the album as a whole, there’s no way to deny that Human Reaction has its flaws and would benefit from greater refinement, but its imperfection is the bait which promises to leave listeners hoping for more music from mssv. The imperfections in the album are obvious, but listeners of a particular mind will be won over by it and be left hopeful that the band will return with another album which will illustrate how the band has refined their work soon. [Bill Adams]
mssv’s Human Reaction LP is out now on Big Ego Records. Buy it here, directly from the band’s official site.