The Black Watch Future Strangers

The Black Watch Mate Britpop Melancholy with California Brightness on ‘Future Strangers’

The Black Watch’s Future Strangers is a collection of Britpop-influenced love-and-loss songs that abound in buoyant musical assurance and well-honed craft.

Future Strangers
The Black Watch
ATOM Records
24 March 2023

John Andrew Fredrick, the founder and sole proprietor of the Black Watch, plays the part of the melancholy British popster just about perfectly. His strong English accent adds vocal emotion and signifying sense to his dour romantic lyrics, and his songwriting, anchored in “And Your Bird Can Sing”, owes a spiritual debt to Syd Barrett and Kevin Ayers while sounding more like the post-punk 1980s third-wave of the British Invasion: Joy Division, the Cure, the Church, et al. He appears to have taken his band’s name, the Black Watch, from a 19th-century Scottish military regiment or perhaps from the Everton footballers, whose nickname derives from it. He shows a predilection for writing Anglo locutions like “in hospital” instead of “in the hospital”, even though he has lived in southern California for decades.

The rub is that Fredrick is from California, not the UK, and his bilious-and-supercilious Britisher is a sort of character he has created to front the Black Watch, which is only one of his pursuits. He has also published five books, from a garrulous multivolume roman à clef about an unfamous pop band (any resemblance to actual) to an ebullient study of the early films of Wes Anderson, another American artist who doesn’t quite come off as one. Speaking of art, Fredrick is also an accomplished painter. Meanwhile, he has taught English and film studies at three different colleges (or, as a Brit might put it, “at uni”).

Somehow, Fredrick has also found time to make umpteen albums under the Black Watch moniker, abetted by the usual fungible assortment of bandmates that typifies indie projects like this one. No matter when or with whom he has made music, it would generally sound great on the Pretty in Pink soundtrack (a compliment) and, in many cases, improve it. It’s left-of-center Britpop that salts teen angst with smarts, seams it with irony, applies mordant triage to heartbreak, and (like the Pretty in Pink movie poster) is more grayscale than pink. Yet most of the Black Watch’s output is guitar-driven, major-chord stuff that supports buoyant melodicism, spirited harmonies, wry wit, and an instinct for the bright side: try the lovely, folkish “Moonlight Thru Ivy”, which “comes through a crack in the door”—a silver lining, in so many words.

Perhaps ingrained Southern California optimism is why Fredrick has kept on making music for more than 30 years despite limited notoriety. In that context, he resembles his direct British musical influences less than he does someone like Anton Barbeau—another gifted, productive California pop musician with pronounced Anglophile tendencies who ought to be much more famous than he is. (The two have shared live bills in the past.)

If Fredrick harbors resentment or frustration over his 31 Years of Obscurity (the Black Watch’s 2019 best-of compilation), it certainly isn’t audible on their new album, Future Strangers. Its 11 songs abound in sanguine musical assurance and well-developed craft. In the past, Fredrick has shown an occasional penchant for goofiness, like the throwaway title track to the Black Watch’s 2019 album Magic Johnson (“Magic was the greatest point guard of all time / And you’re mistaken if you name another guy”), and for indie self-indulgence, such as the unkempt seven-and-a-half-minute guitar sprawl of the early track “Kinda Sorta”.

Those sorts of unnecessaries are absent from Future Strangers. So are the explicit literary references that have dotted Fredrick’s prior catalog (Jane Austen, Theodore Roethke, Wallace Stevens, et al). Instead, here is a straightforward collection of direct and plainspoken love-and-loss songs that do without nearly every distraction and prop. Maybe it’s just that Fredrick has been writing and recording long enough by now that he can zero in on home truths without needing to consult his library or mess around very much in the studio. Lyrically, he finds simple but trenchant phrases it’s hard to believe no one thought of sooner: “I never should have let you so far in / I couldn’t get you out again,” he sings in his stony baritone on “Neverland of Spoken Things”. On “In My Head “: “You and I were talking, yet not quite / Signs and little symbols [later “looks and little gestures”] that weren’t quite right.”

These are the kinds of quietly damning summary observations that pinpoint the irretrievable end of relationships. Hence the title Future Strangers, perhaps: as a famous Californian once sang, we’ve only just begun—but it’s already over. No wonder the word “nothing” appears in Future Strangers’ first two song titles or that the second, “Nothing Left to Say”, is repeated so many times that its subtly witty self-contradiction grows desperate until finally conceding: “All there is, is yesterday.”

Not that Future Strangers is a mopey gloom-fest, far from it. There is plenty of melodic lift and lilt throughout, as well as able playing from the Black Watch’s current lineup (substantially multi-instrumentalists Rob Campanella and Andy Creighton). The trancey “Wish I Had Something” even comes dangerously close to being an actual dance track. Perhaps in its midsection, the album gets a little indistinct song by song. Here and there, a shout or a wail, whether from a voice or a guitar, would be a welcome interjection: an arrow from the heart to bring a quiver to the upper lip the English—and Anglophiles like Fredrick—have kept so stiff for centuries.

Yet as the album draws toward its end, Future Strangers reveals the American—and the cineaste—lurking behind Fredrick’s Oxford don persona. The loose, propulsive “Off You Go Redux!” borrows the iconic first line of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” to launch into an ebullient tune about the movie for which it was the theme, The Graduate, which is not only set in Fredrick’s southern California but also one of the most quintessentially American movies ever made.

Just as Fredrick’s concern is with the movie rather than its famous song, it isn’t the legendary Mrs. Robinson who interests him but rather Benjamin and Elaine, the ardent but ordinary young lovers at the film’s heart center. They’re yet another pair of future strangers, and what Fredrick wants to know from them is whether they’ve learned anything from the years they’ve lived or whether they’ve all “gone quite insane”. To punctuate the question, he adds that yelp we’ve been waiting for.

“Off You Go Redux!” almost certainly belongs on the list of Best Songs About Movies. On the next Black Watch album, will Fredrick tackle Wes Anderson’s Rushmore? Better still, perhaps he could track down Pretty in Pink’s Andie and Duckie and ask them whether the future they now inhabit has held a place for them; or whether the obscurity all young people go in fear of has turned them into strangers, as it has the Black Watch. If they answer the latter, he might reassure them—and Benjamin and Elaine, while he’s at it—that a life doesn’t have to be examined from without or lit from above (or even moonlit through a crack in the door) to be worth living. We can supply all our own color and take the full measure of ourselves, as the pretty-in-pink prom dress Andie designed and stitched in her own image affirmed.

Off you go, then, Benjamin—except that Fredrick has a different ending in mind. On Future Stranger’s last song, “Julie 3”, he returns to pop music’s central preoccupation with love. He sings of a kind of self-in-selflessness that romantic devotion wants to fulfill but rarely does. “Everything I want now / I want for you,” he both declaims and confesses—a beautifully limpid line—before laying his heart and his lover’s bare at once without so much as a rhyme to protect them: “There’s a place that I like / So much that it hurts / Can you guess where it is? / Oh yeah, it’s inside you.”

“Julie 3’s” backing track is the album’s simplest: a gently strummed acoustic guitar decorated only with a little mellotron (or something similar). Together with the plaintive lyric, the song is right up there with something like Big Star’s yearning “Give Me Another Chance”—a piece of glistening vulnerability that seems somehow unmistakably American. “Julie 3” ought to put the Black Watch in the early running to make another Best Of list: Most Beautiful Songs of 2023. It deserves to be heard by many more ears than it probably will be. If it becomes a future stranger, that’s our loss.

RATING 7 / 10