Ben Watts has worn many creative hats in his young life. Bendites may remember his skateboarding and snowboarding days in the 2000s and early 2010s, or his musical adventures under his own name and with various bands in more recent years. Before moving to Eugene in 2016, he played guitar and served as main songwriter for raging punk quartet Sex Repellent, while continuing to pursue his quieter, singer-songwriter tendencies at open mics, solo shows and in his recordings.
There’s a through-line with both musical directions on the prolific Watts’ most recent album, “Sunroom,” the first he’s released under the moniker Vallow. But most of these 17 tracks find Watts forging ahead into uncharted territory. The songwriting draws heavily from classical and electronic music as well as the hook-filled music of The Beatles and Elliott Smith (a longtime influence of Watts’), while the found samples and looped passages create an immer sive experience that can be hard to penetrate on first (or second, or 20th) listen, but is worth the continued effort.
Watts described the album as a “musical stream-of-consciousness novel,” which is divided into four movements — another nod to the album’s classical influences. Watts recorded almost all sounds on his own at home using one microphone, and he makes the most of this lo-fi setting. Though there’s plenty of guitar on the album (the anxiety-filled rocker “Discount Surgery” is a late-album highlight), Watts focuses on piano and strings both synthesized and organic (he plays cello throughout, to often stunning results). His choir-like four-part harmony vocals, a recurring motif throughout many songs, kick off opening track “Doomsday, Everyday!” before the song explodes with a grinding, industrial-influenced chorus. Texturally, it sounds like four or five songs in one, though the insistent melody keeps everything in the same universe.
This continues throughout the album, with songs beginning one way and ending in an entirely different place (“The Indifferent Sigh of God,” which begins life as a piano-and-strings ballad before exploding again with distorted guitars toward the end; the creeping “Comatose Rosary,” which sounds like Smith fronting latter-day Radiohead with much better hooks). The soundscapes help emphasize the conflicting lyrical themes of hopefulness and darkness — typical themes for Watts’ songwriting, but brought out in new ways here.
Watts will probably never escape comparisons to Smith thanks to that voice of his. But he’s rapidly growing beyond that influence, and “Sunroom” proves there’s plenty of directions for him to take that evolution.
— By Brian McElhiney