Review: Watchers – Dune Phase

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Originally published in Delusions of Adequacy May 20, 2005

The band hails from Chicago, the label’s in New Jersey, and the record’s title is a reference to a stretch of land in northern Indiana, but, from the first notes of Watchers’ Dunes Phase EP, you’ll swear the whole thing is a DC affair.

You can hear it in the edgy, borderline-reckless and danceable thump and sway of it all, how vocalist Michael Makeout suggestively spits out a phrase, the way guitarist Ethan D’Ercole seems, at times, less concerned with a series of specific or pristine notes than in the emotion and force of the delivery. The EP is short, that much needs to be said, but the band does more than make an impact on the disc’s 17 minutes. It forces you to loop from end to beginning and back again.

Much of Dunes Phase could be broken down into camps — the funky and the funkier. Right from the get-go, the band makes its intentions and its modus operandi pretty clear, kicking off “To the Rooftops” with upbeat handclaps, infectiously danceable percussion from Jamie Levinson and Damien “The Gent” Thompson, and all the chikka-chikka funk guitar you can take. But, just when you think the quintet is a vibrant, 21st-century homage to Big Boys six-string luminary Tim Kerr, in comes Makeout, a frontman who seems to borrow as much from Jon Spencer’s swagger or Ian MacKaye’s loaded narration-speak as he does from Bowie or David Byrne.

The songs that follow only build on this almost inherent sense of fun and musical abandon — “Mono Mano” (a one-handed song, it seems, that appears on the disc twice) cranks up the band’s debt to dub by more than a few degrees; “Blick ‘Em” is a catchy cross-pollination of reggae, early ska, and guitar-propelled soul.

Songs like “The Sway,” whose running time barely breaks three minutes, can feel as epic as they are energizing. Beginning with the skittering repetitions of a digitally delayed guitar, the song essentially revolves around Chris Kralik’s plucky bass, stripped-down drums, and vocals that are sensual and suggestive enough to make some listeners feel oddly compelled to press charges. The second mix/take on the track (like “Mono Mano,” it appears twice) is much the same, though guest artist Wayne Montana cranks up the dub and dance-floor sensibility of the song by lending a LSD-soaked set of ears to the percussion and Makeout’s wails.

Montana’s revisioning of “Mono Mano” bears similar marks, with the percussion sounding increasingly Caribbean-influenced with each passing click and clack of the drums.

“Badge Said Go” calls to mind Big Boys as much as it does early Fugazi and the more recent angularity of the explosive UK duo/trio Giddy Motors. But while Giddy Motors might have played the two-minute romp as a pressurized nugget of jazz-flecked post-punk, Watchers give it a recklessness of the slightly less volatile kind with swaying, slightly de-tuned guitars, occasional Moog-effects, and drums that drive and push things forward. If Gern Blandsten hadn’t heard it first, it’s just the type of energized and unique punk you wouldn’t be surprised to hear in the universe of Dischord and DC.

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