Music

The Black Watch: Led Zeppelin Five

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.


The Black Watch

Led Zeppelin Five

Label: The Eskimo Record Label
US Release Date: 2011-04-17
UK Release Date: Import
Artist website
Amazon
iTunes

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.

7

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image