It's been a two year road trip since Patrick Watson's debut release 'Close To Paradise' scooped Canada's 2007 Polaris Prize (their bi-annual equivalent of the Mercury Prize), in turn fending off releases from Feist and Arcade Fire. No small feat, and an indicator of a truly imaginative and original artist who on 'Close To Paradise' festooned a Victorian cabaret wiliness and theatrical tropes alongside a dreamland spectacular. 'Close To Paradise' simply does not jade, measured and mysterious, it marvels at every listen showing oceanic depths. It's a work characterised by songs that speak of states of mind - burden ('Weight Of The World'), menace ('The Storm'), and lassitude ('The Great Escape') to name a few.
'Wooden Arms' is less immediate and fathom deep, it is nevertheless every bit a work of wonder and infused with a playfulness that takes it's time for the drama to build. Watson captures passing cityscapes in vignettes that remind of the Jarmusch movie, 'Night On Earth', gleaned as were from a life on the road. And boy, does Watson loves to build the song in live performance, then rip through with noise effects slashing the atmospherics like the knife-wielding artist Lucio Fontana.
'Wooden Arms' was recorded in Montreal over a few short months at the tail end of 2008 once the tour-bus had pulled to a stop - less episodic than 'Close To Paradise', it is, however, grand in scope with impressionistic orchestral swoops from Robert Kirby (Nick Drake, Paul Weller, Elvis Costello, Magic Numbers, Vashti Bunyan) yet showing a percussive heartbeat and cohesive, if experimental 4-piece band (Simon Angell on guitar, Robbie Kuster on drums and Mishka Stein on bass), while Watson's voice feels soft-focused and shows less of the Jeff Buckley-like pirouettes.
There's a new edge to be found with the Robert Kirby's string orchestrations apperaing on 'Tracy's Waters', a wonderful dreamy piece of urban-folk flotsom and jetson marrying with banjo, piano, strings and tin-pan alley percussion, while 'Beijing' displays Powaqqatsi-like orchestrations of exoticism - piano-led with a rhythmic percussive hubbub capturing the pulse of a city as Watson sings "...it was the sound of a city, speaks to me..." and bicycle wheels tick, and 'Fireweed' builds up to a swelter. 'Machinery Of The Heavens' is more a cabaret-romp than the universal harmony of the spheres - "...keep your toes a tapping on the ground..." that finds time for some boogie woogie and steel pedal, as 'Down At The Beach' is an instrumental work of bass and percussion magic that finishes with the heavenly harp, while 'Wooden Arms' shows a stirring klezmer-like soft piano arrangement augmented by strings and with Watson duetting with an unnamed female vocalist.
'Where The Wild Things Are' is one of the album's strongest moments showing artfulness in the orchestral majesty of pizzicato strings, glockenspiel and piano, and the eerie cabaret of 'Traveling Salesman' is chock-full of semiotic meaning - the 69 Chardonnays and sharks in his glass of the protagonist, exploring Simon Angell's angular Marc Ribot-like guitar riffs, as swirling organ and Tibetan Monastery honking brass bridge the cultures. 'Big Bird In A Small Cage' features a Lisa Hannigan-like female duet that scores a plaintive lullaby from piano and banjo as Watson sings - "...there was a hallway a 1000-birds long...you put a big bird in a small cage and he'll sing you a song...". 'Man Like You' reprises the sentiments found on Watson's magical vocal accompaniment of 'To Build A Home' from Cinematic Orchestra's 'Ma Fleur', dreamy and evocative, a tender cut.
The experimental side to 'Wooden Arms' shows in the partnership with Robert Kirby, a liason sure to bear fruit like the arrangements of Van Dyke Parks for Joanna Newsom's 'Y's'. The songs throughout 'Wooden Arms' feel drawn from a sketch book, a photo album of the mind, and as such are less internal than 'Close To Paradise'. It's this reluctance of 'Wooden Arms' that shows less of the flying by the seat of your pants that made 'Close To Paradise' such a spellbinder, whilst true to form, Patrick Watson remains every inch a musician's musician.