It’s astonishing that a group as dedicated to quality and craft as California’s Black Watch could go for two decades with a cult following the size of a kitchen sponge. Literature professor/bandleader John Andrew Frederick and his cohorts have become experts at straining influences — mostly ’80s British guitar pop, with a sprinkling of Dylan and Velvets — through a distinctive sieve, making warm, melodic music that tweaks the mind as much as the heart. The band’s body of work is remarkably consistent, worth searching out by more than just epicures of obscurity.
Released on the band’s own Eskimo label, the first Black Watch album is music from a different continent: echoes of House of Love, the Smiths, Jazz Butcher and their ilk are everywhere. But the results of this blatant homage are uneven. “Record Shop Girl” moves too swiftly from cute tribute to telegraphed punch line, the occasional sax interjections smell faintly of cheese and Frederick’s Robert Smith-on-downers singing needs work. But cuts like “Throw It,” “And Then the Rain” and the title tune hit the right notes, even if they’re someone else’s. A charming first try.
Frederick made the four-song Short Stories with a completely new band, including violinist/guitarist J’anna Jacoby, an important creative foil for the next decade. Clear production, peppier tempos (which keep Frederick’s voice from sounding so stentorian), stronger tunes and intermittent blasts of fuzz stuff the EP full of promise.
The Black Watch built on the EP’s gains with the appropriately titled Flowering. Moving away from the strict ’80s framework of its prior work, the band opened up the arrangements, letting Jacoby’s fiddle slither and slide its way through the fresh air. Frederick’s singing hits the sweet ‘n’ sour spot he’d been aiming at; a solid score for his tuneful songs. His inner language geek comes out here, sneering at the “boring stupid petty thing” in “Terrific,” paying tribute to a favorite poet in “Mrs. Browning” or gently tweaking hipster gloom in “Jaded.” Lines like “You fold yourself into your lemon room / Floating ginger as a curtain dancing with the moon” may seem strained on the page, but when married to the melody of “Jennifer Jennifer” they attain real beauty. For all the wordplay, though, the band is just as effective on the stripped down rocker “A Better Way” (“Everybody wants someone to live for / Everybody wants someone to die for / There’s a better way” pretty much sums up the libretto) and the lovely instrumental “This One’s for Chandler,” an ode to Frederick’s son.
The sharply produced Amphetamines was the quartet’s failed bid for indie rock stardom: careful layers of multiple textures surround songs that strip down the lyrics but rev up the hooks. “You’ve Got This Thing” and “Just Get Away” are candied janglepop gems, while “Kill” is a dreamy floater and “Come Inside” and “See You Around” (which features Medicine’s Brad Laner on guitar) are the band’s most aggressive rockers to this point. “Just Last Night” and “The King of Good Intentions” carefully build to epic waves of violin sawing and guitar crunge: Frederick’s never sung with such tuneful control. Jacoby takes the mic for the hazy “Nightlight,” the leaden “Tulip” and “See You Around.” A beautifully crafted record.
The odds and ends on Seven Rollercoasters start with both sides of a Jacoby-sung single. “I Feel So Weird” alternates jagged, Pixies-like verses with an uplifting pop chorus, while “Steve Albini” professes love for the titular indie rock icon over a bed of overdubbed violins. The rest of the EP is fairly wobbly, though an acoustic version of “See You Around” (sung by Frederick) is nice.
Made by Frederick and Jacoby as a duo with hired hands, The King of Good Intentions is related to his novel of that title. Close inspection may reveal the connection and a narrative thread, but awareness of the album’s literary inspiration isn’t necessary to enjoy another fine set of songs. “Drag,” “The Wrong People” and the tongue-mangling “Uncheerupable” provide the requisite doses of smart, razorblade power pop. “Evangeline” and “Pretty” are mostly acoustic folk rock lilt, while “Quasi Stellar Radio Source” floats a psychedelic shoegaze cloud. Jacoby’s violin washes, slices and saws its way through these tracks with a keen grace. Nothing new here, just another consistently strong collection of intelligent pop.
Back to a full lineup, the Black Watch opens Lime Green Girl with energetic blasts of loud, melodic rock via “Caroline” and “Bring Me the Shears!” They turn midtempo afterward, threatening to sink into well-intentioned but sludgy prettiness, until abruptly roaring back near the end with “Summerland” and “Purple Milk & Yr Pink Sky.” As a bonus to this brief album (which includes a competent but pointless power pop version of Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind”), it contains a seven song best-of drawn from the four prior releases.
Although something of a placeholder, The Christopher Smart EP has its merits, including the sweetly poppy “To William, My Father, Who Brought Home Books on India.” Jiggery-Pokery finds the band stripped down to the twosome of Frederick and Jacoby once again, allowing for a few wrinkles in the classic suit. Jacoby is joined by a cellist on a few cuts, adding rich textures to “Dear Abby” and “Lovestruck.” Keyboards work their way into the din as well. Frederick’s lyrics often revert back to his literary roots — few songwriters can get away with titles like “Bathyscope to Astronaut” (one of two cuts to feature the Jazz Butcher), “Persephone Achieves” and “The Tennis-Playing Poet Roethke Said,” much less make the accompanying songs palatable. Never fear: Frederick reveals the self-doubt behind alleged cultural elitism in the winsome “Mr. Ordinary Man” — “What right have I to criticize him?” The album’s second half is stronger, offering the grungy rocker “Come Tomorrow,” the cynical “Everything Is Just a Scam” (on which the strings really shine) and the spare, rushing “Here Today.” Special treat: the Pat Fish-sung “What is the Color of Happiness?”
With Jacoby off to a dizzying session career for the likes of Rod Stewart and John Tesh, plus a dozen string quartet tribute records, Frederick engaged a new set of sidepersons to bring his vision to life on Very Mary Beth. There’s a noticeable diminution of energy; Frederick’s singing sounds particularly enervated. The lyrics, likewise evince less intricacy. That’s all well and good for midtempo numbers like “Floating” and “All These Shivers,” but not helpful for the rockers.
After a teaser EP, The Innercity Garden, the Black Watch found its footing again on The Hypnotizing Sea. Bright, clean production (by guitarist Tim Boland) sets the scene for Frederick’s strongest batch of songs since The King of Good Intentions. “Papercut” and “Story of Your Life” are sparkling pop, while “Innercity Garden” and the title track are superlative psychedelia. The anthemic instrumental “Room 407” and the gently bent “Another Summer Coming” navigate a previously unexplored space betwixt the band’s extremes. “The Teacup Song” and “The Way of the World” drop the literary/musical yoga for simple, sedate emotional release. Frederick again pays tribute to his formative influences, with the unabashed love ode “The Shakespeare Song” and the more contemplative “Dylan Dylan Dylan,” in which he uses the iconic songwriter to work through his melancholy moods. Frederick’s son Chandler, first rhapsodized on Flowering 14 years earlier, guests on keyboards. A smashing return to form.
Tatterdemalion suffers only by comparison. Frederick’s writing is still at full strength, balancing sour and sweet on “The Angels Just Might Be on Her Side” and “Where There Were Orange Trees” better than honey on a buttermilk biscuit. Guitar fuzz improves “Autoportrait” and the title track; “Ashly” is the group’s harshest number ever. “Her Jet Black Hair” winsomely notes that a guy has no chance with the owner of the titular locks, before helpfully advising, “So I say heck just give it your best shot / She might not be as stuck up as you thought.” “The Lost Colony of Roanoake” works despite its pretension, a shoegaze number that sardonically asks, “Don’t you know your history / From the sixteenth century?” Excellent stuff.
Originally planned as Frederick’s first solo album, Icing the Snow Queen instead became another sterling Black Watch release. With production duties shifting from Boland to bassist Scott Taylor (to no noticeable difference), the record has an introspective tone, although Frederick’s literary takes on romance never feel self-absorbed. The album finds room for the Watch’s peppy power poppers, of which the slide guitar-frosted “Peppermint,” the wry, fuzzy “Oh Death Death Death” and the 12-string-saturated “Jenny Holly Wally Martin” are perfect examples. But quieter fare like “Quite Contrary,” “Quartz Pink Cloud” and “The Jean Rhys Appreciation Society” (an acoustic instrumental that emphasizes melody over flash) are the order of the day. Icing the Snow Queen requires more patience than usual, but close attention yields another rich Black Watch experience. The After the Gold Room EP is a sort of addendum to Icing the Snow Queen, remixing/re-editing a pair of the LP tracks and adding four new tunes, including the fuzz-soaked “Strawberry Girl” and the sardonic “One for the Republicans.”
The title of Led Zeppelin Five isn’t just a cheeky music nerd reference — the band’s eleventh full-length record contains some of TBW’s loudest, crunchiest numbers. “Earl Grey Tea” (sung by new guitarist Steven Schayer, formerly of the Chills), “Emily, Are You Sleeping?” and the stunning “How Much About Love” rock harder than anything in the group’s past, yet uphold Frederick’s trademark lyricism. The latter quality stands out more blatantly on the record’s less frenetic numbers, of course, letting “Kinda Sorta,” “Like in the Movies” and the beautifully winsome “The Stars in the Sky” make their cases via pretty melodies and personable singing. The skronk guitar solo in “Kinda Sorta” adds just the right note of bitter to the sweet — The Black Watch in a nutshell. Be sure to hang around after the final track to be treated to an amp-frying take on TBW spiritual forebear George Harrison’s Beatles-era gem “It’s All Too Much.”
The End of When opens with the one-two pop punch of “I Don’t Feel the Same” and “Meg,” two of the finest creations in the Black Watch’s catalog. The delights don’t end there, fortunately. The band revisits its psychedelic side for the nervous “Hardly Nothing Never Ending” and the luscious “Always Honey” and alternately wisping/blasting “A Pleasing Dream/That’s You and Me All Over.” The sprightly “The Spare Side” lives up to its title with an airy arrangement that nonetheless finds room for a creamy horn lick. Frederick’s writing on the title track is as elegant an expression of devotion as can be found in the band’s wryly romantic repertoire. Schayer really makes himself felt on this record, contributing just the right jangly lick or spot of noise at just the right time, and writing and singing the tartly sweet closing ballad “Unlistening” himself. With liner notes from the Clean’s David Kilgour and an appended best-of disc adding to to the powerfully consistent set of tunes, The End of When not only furthers the Black Watch’s legacy of quality, but provides a perfect entry point for neophytes.