A frequently excellent but widely ignored outfit, Fischer-Z was primarily a vehicle for John Watts, a singer/guitarist/songwriter whose intense vocals and semi-neurotic outlook provided its character. A flair for intricate but accessible arrangements and novel subject matter made Fischer-Z both easy to like and hard to dismiss.
Word Salad, produced by Mike Howlett and recorded as a quartet, displays Watts in the process of searching out an ego, still sharing songwriting credits and vocal chores with the others. It’s an impressive debut album, full of great songs, fine musicianship and stylistic variety, all colored by Watts’ reedy voice.
With the same personnel and producer, Going Deaf for a Living uses a sparer sound, downplaying the keyboards in favor of Cars-like simplicity, best exemplified on “So Long.” An odd direction for a second record, but the band’s attributes remained unchanged, and it’s as good as the first.
Red Skies Over Paradise is a solo album waiting for someone to inform the other members of the group. Watts co-produced, played the keyboards and allowed his songwriting to become entirely self-indulgent. With a serious baritone replacing the plaintive tenor (it’s always a bad sign when singers change their voices) and no-nonsense message lyrics, there’s a lot wrong with this disappointing album, despite four or five good numbers.
Not surprisingly, Watts then went solo. The material on One More Twist is a bit forced and clearly less interesting than his earlier writing, with only a Tom Robinson-sounding single, “One Voice,” showing any real signs of life.
After The Iceberg Model also failed to ignite his solo career, Watts reassumed the Fischer-Z moniker — without bothering to reform the original band — for Reveal and Fish’s Head. Though these discs hardly amount to a stunning comeback, each contains enough bright moments to suggest that Watts shouldn’t be counted out just yet. The cleverly titled Going Red for a Salad is an ample condensation of the original band’s first three albums, containing about half of each.