Neither Scottish pipers nor a swan song
On many small labels, since 1987, John Andrew Fredrick and his band craft gritty power-pop. On their 11th full-length album, The Black Watch features what Fredrick, a professor of English, creates with edgily erudite lyrics and a stoic, determined vocal delivery. While his voice recalls Ian McCulloch’s deep, steady tone, his guitar style for me does not hearken back to The Church or the Go-Betweens (frequent comparisons) so much as Scott Miller’s intricate, brainy tunes for Game Theory and The Loud Family.
Miller and Fredrick led California, college-town indie rock ensembles starting in the 1980s. They both remained the leaders, singer-songwriters, and only constant members. Both construct energetic, shifting rock musical templates that they can’t help but tinker with, dismantle, spin about, and rebuild. Fredrick prefers a less quirky approach, however. He sticks on Led Zeppelin Five, despite its cheeky title, to a more serious, less self-consciously clever tone than Miller, in both vocal pitch and guitar-based melody.
This album improves with repeated listening. At first, these somewhat dour, if oddly peppy, songs may sound too similar. They begin to open up as their riffs burrow down in your memory. Fredrick applies his songwriting in a slightly oblique strategy, taking the college-rock styles of the New Wave and post-punk eras while striving to stamp his composed personality upon this solid design.
“Oscillating” starts off the album, menacing by a spare electric guitar, with Fredrick’s voice sounding more like “isolating” as he repeats the word over and over. “How Much About Love” begins more softly. It boosts the dynamic into a familiar shift and then to a danceable but confident heft as the band joins in.
Guitarist Steven Schayer (brother of Bad Religion’s drummer) with ex-Velouria drummer Rick Woodard and bassist Scott Taylor provide the range Fredrick needs to convey his songs (most of which he takes sole credit for) as accessible to indie-rock fans looking for literate pop-rock. The decline of indie rock stores and radio stations oriented towards the music of Fredrick’s generation leaves many listeners playing the same old records from 1967 or 1978. It’s a pleasure to hear a record released which compliments these earlier sounds without pandering to them.
For “Emily, Are You Sleeping?” a drier vocal mix continues the guitar-pop with another increase in volume. These first songs recall 1980s power-pop but they do not imitate it. Similarly, “Like in the Movies” takes inspiration from The Smiths through a laconic, if harmony-laden, mid-tempo approach.
“Cognate Objects” floors the distortion pedal, a welcome move for a band often associated with softer, jangly tunes. A catchy riff means this song stands out. Given the title, “Earl Grey Tea” returns to the Anglophile roots which enrich Fredrick’s words and music. This song strives for the energy of the previous half of the album, but it prefers a straightforward, less ornamented performance. At its end, strummed and picked snippets of “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” by The Byrds waft past.
This deft blend of British and American flavors defines The Black Watch. The enigmatically titled “The Maid’s Been Round” takes another song reminiscent of The Smiths but slows down the speed. While less lively and slightly less engaging, the lyric “I thought I’d drink away some pain” fits the track neatly.
The Hoboken, N.J., mood of Yo La Tengo and The Feelies simmers into “Only Lasted”; and “The Stars in the Sky” as with its title feels slightly methodical, more stiffly conveyed than earlier songs. The second half of the album slows by the seventh, eighth, and ninth tracks. This attests to Scott Campbell’s production and the band’s sense that these may be the places suited for its less swirling, more ringing, polite pop songs. These are respectable, but they represent a leveling off of the album’s previous momentum.
I prefer the louder, aggressive styles which show off the guitar textures and songwriting byways better. “Kinda Sorta” turns this album’s triumph. It meanders but does not wander, recalling again Scott Miller’s parallel trajectory (or that of The Soft Boys), with a frenetic saunter through off-kilter, trippier, neo-psychedelic explorations.
Fittingly, the album closes with a hidden track—“Weirdly”, which turns out as far as I can tell to be a cover of “It’s All too Much” by The Beatles. As with “Kinda Sorta”, this shows off the band’s more lysergic tones with panache, and at seven minutes, it manages to pay tribute to this familiar song without tiring the listener. It compares well also to the cover of this same song by The Church, while keeping it in step with the rest of this smart, ambitious and satisfying album.
For musicians recording, at least for Fredrick, almost a quarter-century, this album on his own label left me wondering. Not about the band’s abilities, but about the band’s obscurity. With trendier musicians around the band’s Los Angeles base near the Echo Park-Silverlake-Los Feliz neighborhoods of Los Angeles acclaimed for far more derivative styles, the fact that this album appears on Fredrick’s own label registers the band’s neglect by the mainstream. Perhaps this offers them freedom to perfect their sensible sound as neither Scots pipers nor a swan song. The Black Watch merits acclaim for such a strong album, far into their career. At its best, it displays an enviable command of loud, crunchy guitar-based pop-rock, not too sweet, not too sour.