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Mike Watt, recovering from his all-star alterna-rock debut solo album, returned in 1997 with what is perhaps the strongest album he has ever made. Of course, his earlier Minutemen albums will forever go down as landmarks, but in retrospect, many of the band’s SST releases were brilliant but uneven affairs that put polemics (and great song titles) over consistent songwriting. Unfortunately, much of fIREHOSE’s oeuvre is rife with inconsistency, and on Watt’s first solo project, he and his songs were overshadowed by a boatload of high-profile musicians who contributed to the album. Contemplating the Engine Room is Watt’s masterpiece, what he calls “a punk rock opera.” This is a concept album that works on every level: musically, lyrically, and (most importantly) conceptually. Watt (who sings and plays his trusty bass guitar), drummer Steve Hodges, and guitarist Nels Cline form a psychic bond that allows them to dexterously maneuver the complex terrain Watt has laid out in his songs, which celebrate three guys playing together, punk rock, life, and his relationship with his dad.