California’s the Black Watch has existed as a rock outfit since the late ’80s with various lineups and on a maze of labels. The one constant has been at the core: writer and English professor John Andrew Fredrick.
As one might expect from a doctor of literature, Frederick has an ear for catchy lines and hidden meanings. Frederick also has a thing for the sound of electric guitars. However, the poetry of his compositions lies more in his fret work and the styles with how he hits the strings than with his lyrics. He follows in the tradition of classic rock. The music recalls the sounds of past semi-psychedelic glories filtered to the present tense.
So it’s no wonder that many of the songs on Magic Johnson explicitly deal with the trope of insanity, a staple of late ’60s / early ’70s music that overtly declared that the only sane response to living in an insane world was to be crazy. The Doors, the Who, David Bowie, etc. all riffed on this theme as a way of engaging with a society that left them feeling alienated and alone.
For Frederick, being nuts means everything from being madly in love to believing in illusions more than reality on tracks such as “Mad”, “April Fools”, and “Eustacia’s Dream”. More importantly, the subject matter encourages him to take wild, enthusiastic approaches to his playing. He’s not a shredder so much as someone who passionately follows where his lead guitar takes him.
There’s an enthusiasm to his playing that suggests once he has found a cool-sounding line, he’s not going to let it go until he wrings every drop of joy out of it, which befits his lyrical absurdity. Even on the more acoustic cuts, such as “Arcane Constraints”, where he declares the importance of rhyme over reason, Frederick lets the sound of the instruments drown out the words to express his feelings. The constraints of which he sings are about the limitations of language in our efforts to communicate.
Frederick sings lead vocals in a somewhat anglicized accent reminiscent of the Rolling Stones in the mid-’60s (think Aftermath or December’s Children). This adds a formal feeling to the proceedings. There is no out of control shouting despite the somewhat tempestuous concerns. Even when he sings about “laughing like a madman”, he does so in a restrained manner.
Frederick provides all the vocals as best as one can tell. The rest of the band (Rick Woodard, drums; Chris Rackard, bass; Andy Creighton, guitar) back him up instrumentally, but keep their mouths shut.
The title song is a one-minute and 15-second tribute to basketball’s “Magic Johnson” that is redolent of The Beatles’ “Her Majesty”. The goofy sincerity gives it charm. In America, where sport is king, maybe Johnson is the version of an outdated royal that still retains ceremonial nobility. Whatever. Its inclusion here—and its choice as the song from which the album gets its name—suggests that Frederick understands the importance of not being too earnest.
The 12 tracks here (and the inclusion of the EP “Paper Boats” that was initially released last year on this album) reveal that Frederick still finds music more than just a game after all these years, even if might be crazy to continue to pursue the muse.