The Black Watch, now 22 years on and releasing their 17th (or 18th?) record, emerged from the early ’90s Los Angeles indie scene. Influenced by jangly pop-rock that possesses the slightly psychedelic tinge of its one-time contemporaries, the band continues to produce intelligent, accessible music. It may beg for a cult following, but the musicians deserve a wider audience.
Led Zeppelin Five, the band’s previous release, evoked this style, straightforward in its affable accessibility, yet lyrically suggestive or elusive. Steven Schayer (ex-Clay Idols and the Chills) and Fredrick share vocals. Their twin guitars shimmer with the sheen that fans of Australians the Go-Betweens or New Zealanders the Clean may welcome. David Kilgour of the latter band in a liner note praises the Black Watch’s “delightful and thoughtful pop”. The Antipodean tradition of modestly conceived, genial (if often restive or morosely lovelorn) literacy filters through the careful results.
Rick Woodard on drums and Chris Rackard on bass (augmented by producer Scott Campbell) provide steady support. No notes guide me to which singer takes on which song and both vocalists favor a deep, declamatory delivery. This works well in the opener, a charging “I Don’t Feel the Same”. “Meg” and “Hardly Nothing Never Ending” continue in a softer shuffle.
“Oh Oh” churns away with intertwined guitars and more energy. The vocal effects show more experimental production, alternating layers which resemble the Anglocentric guitar pop of their origins and colleagues. “Sum” reminds me of Robyn Hitchcock’s introspective forays into the soul. It enters a more atmospheric mood which brings out the band’s textured arrangements to wise effect.
Alternating a more languid and then layered and quietly clanging pace, “Always Honey” brings out the cinematic feel of the band’s song craft. The singers hold back rather than let go, and this may enthuse or frustrate listeners. The band prefers to move the propulsion forward or stay in place musically, so the vocalists remain largely in their own cocooned realm, sounding often downbeat.
With “The End of When”, the Black Watch perks up, and the production lets some space in behind the singing. “Of Lovely Surprises” shifts into mid-tempo terrain, and this music for mature audiences emphasizes reflection and self-awareness, beneath the handsome construction. Songs rarely last long.
Beginning “now my heart is black as flowers”, “The Spare Side” belies its jaunty beat. This appears typical for the Black Watch. The song slides into a flugelhorn-backed phase, before slipping around on the guitars before jolting back to its jaunty start. It could have been a crooner’s hit in 1968: whomever’s singing on this song lets himself emote more, and this improves the track’s impact. Same for the penultimate track, the “A Pleasing Dream/That’s You and Me All Over”. It’s four minutes, but it feels epic by comparison with the previous songs. It amps up the band, and this is needed after so much introversion, and polite endurance of whatever failed love leaves one with. The elegant, if bereft “Unlistening” closes this album powerfully. The guitars roam more lonely, backwards effects deepen the unhinged sensibility, and the brevity of the track heightens its power.
That emotion, lighter on understatement, loosens up the Black Watch. The last two songs of The End of When left this listener with the greatest impact. When the band applies the lessons of psychedelic pop, filtered through the indie rock followers turned musicians of the ’80s and ’90s who perfected a shambling, graceful honesty on record in New Zealand, Britain, or Australia, its music stands out.
Fans or newcomers cuing up the bonus disc’s s16 songs from their prolific back catalog may compare the band’s 17th record with some predecessors. The first two songs, standout cuts from Led Zeppelin Five jump out more aggressively than songs on The End of When. The production sharpens, and the mix pushes the singers forward even as the music swirls better and pounds harder.
Louder volumes and more frenetic tunes express the band’s earlier application of shoegaze and post-punk melody into their varied repertoire, along with the gentler approaches favored on The End of When. I’ve compared Fredrick’s songwriting to the late Scott Miller (Game Theory, Loud Family) and the retrospective disc shows their common influence in graceful or grouchy, yet always smart and eclectic, styles drawn from the best from pop-rock these past decades. You even get to hear a song about eccentric Christopher Smart, a nod to Fredrick’s training as a Ph.D in English literature, from a few centuries ago; another adds to its title a more recent poet, Theodore Roethke. With sly surprises, this bonus disc expands the ranges reached by a steady and solid, and quite an eclectic, band.