Album Review: SLW cc Watt — ‘Real Manic Time’

Being Iowa City’s — scratch that, Iowa’s — most prolific songwriter for years, you would think it would be hard to keep surprising people. While most of us gorged on trashy Netflix documentaries or started and stopped fad hobbies to fill in for the lack of human contact, Sam Locke Ward (also an award-winning cartoonist for Little Village) comes out of the pandemic with a new band, a new album and a new collaborative partner: Mike Watt.

Yes, THE Mike Watt of Minutemen and Firehose fame. (To say I was shocked upon hearing about this team-up is an understatement.)

Real Manic Time, the first release of SLW cc Watt (a nice nod to the online nature of the project), dropped on Bandcamp May 1.

Here, we get 30 tracks at just under 38 minutes, a series of short songs and spoken word collages that, like the title suggests, invokes the feelings of a brand of mania only the last year could have inspired. This loose narrative is told through Locke Ward’s unique brand of weirdo pop, irreverent punk and crazed-smile satire and Watt narrating a series of vignettes, small one-shot stories where unnamed protagonists run into the absurdity of autocrats and the rules imposed by them.

The album starts with “The Verdict,” where, over a layer of Phil Specter-like ooohs and aahs, Watt tells us of the fate of our first anonymous victim of the system. “Something Lost” follows, a sympathetic punk ballad about desperation that also has the distinction of being one of the longer songs on the album, at nearly two minutes. This is also the first appearance of one of the two other collaborators in this project, drummer Grace Locke Ward (Petit Mal, Leslie and the Ly’s), a rare sighting and much needed treat. Bob Bucko Jr, the final team member shows up on track three, “Darkness Reigns,” with a whimsical whisper of flute (he’ll return with later with sax).

The shortness of the songs keep the album moving along. Just as you start shaking your head along to the faux-handclaps and syrupy delivery of “Something Lost,” it’s over, and the drum machine, discordant sax and staccato guitar punch burst in, delivering you into “History Belongs to the Whiners.” Or as you find yourself feeling as whimsical as Bucko’s flute and Watt’s bouncing bass in “Fleeting Are the Times,” the Spaghetti-Western guitars accompanying Watt’s fake commercial voice in “Lip Service” begin. All of that right before the soaring Pixies-esque guitars of one of my favorite tracks, “Lie Broken By the Truth.”

The bait-and-switch of the sequencing might sound disarming but it actually pays off, building a loose but cohesive thematic thread throughout. It is impossible to listen to Real Manic Time and not think of the last year and a half of uncertainty, isolation and encroaching cynicism that is the result of watching our money-driven, me-first economy flail around. The stories told through song and narration take place in a bleak world, a timeline very familiar to many of us, but SLW cc Watt tells them with a sense of humor punctuated with a wink and a snarl.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 296.