The Black Watch 2024
Photo: Sara Minsavage-Bullock / Proxy PR

The Black Watch Might Be Signaling the Beginning of Their End

With Weird Rooms, John Andrew Fredrick and the Black Watch are at the late height of their powers and perhaps the end of their life as a group.

Weird Rooms
The Black Watch
ATOM Records
7 June 2024
The Morning Papers Have Given Us the Vapours
The Black Watch
19 April 2024

You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone, a famous SoCal singer-songwriter once told us. A less famous southern California musician, John Andrew Fredrick, has lately been sending oblique but suggestive signals that the Black Watch, the band he founded in 1987, might be nearing their end. Will that finally get our attention? Over the years, the group have garnered consistent critical praise but little accompanying sales or fame. Perhaps they fall into the vast category of underappreciated acts that were either in the wrong place at the wrong time (or vice versa), one of too many worthy groups trying to get in the same door, much more interested in doing music than marketing, or just plain unlucky.

One thing the Black Watch were never guilty of was not trying often enough. They’ve put out more than 20 albums, and there always seems to be something new on their Bandcamp site—a single, an EP, an announcement. They have released two new LPs in the last two months and have already mixed a third. Mercy. Nor can we accuse them of failing to construct an identity. “I always jest that I’m a recovering Anglophile. And I’ll never recover,” he told an interviewer a few years ago. Fredrick affects a British accent and sings in a bardic baritone, delivering lyrics that partake of a bookishness but are, in fact, quite singalong-ready and would, in many cases, look good in a poetry journal or the pages of a novel. Pace his insistence that “In a lyric, how much can one say? / And lyrics aren’t poetry, no way.”

Fredrick’s Anglophilia notwithstanding, the Black Watch’s two new releases, Weird Rooms (Atom) and The Morning Papers Have Given Us the Vapours (Dell’Orso), make it clear that this is and always was an American band, anchored in college radio of the 1980s: a reminder that just about every guitar-driven indie group formed at that time was almost certain to sound at least a little like R.E.M. Perhaps the indie musician Fredrick more closely resembles, though, is Joe Pernice. Both are book authors as well as musicians; both write well-crafted, well-read lyrics; both are deeply steeped in 1980s Miserabilism (Pernice wrote a novella based on the SmithsMeat Is Murder) while reaching back for the melodic oxygen of the British Invasion. Both surround themselves and their rhythm guitars with very capable bandmates who inject a distinctive sound into their songs.

One decisive difference, however: Pernice has always sung in a vulnerable, breathy tenor, fragility made audible, but Fredrick’s declamatory, Shakespeare-festival baritone generally preserves a protective distance between the singer and the song—he’s acting a part. Unlike Pernice, his demeanor and outlook are fundamentally cheerful despite the Goth-friendly, eyeliner-wearing trappings of his voice and his thematic subjects. He’s even something of a comedian. “I’ll do anything for a laugh,” he said in a PopMatters interview last year. “On my gravestone, it’ll read, ‘I’m just kidding around.’” No doubt—but notice that even that wisecrack is set in a cemetery.

If we’re going to speculate why the Black Watch have never caught on with a larger audience, perhaps one reason is that rock music seldom tolerates kidders, and when it does, they can’t be half putting us on and half-serious. Authentic rock energy either expresses urgent feelings and heartfelt sincerity or proceeds by high artifice. Yet even a conceptual shapeshifter like David Bowie’s frequent donning of new roles and conceits—Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, the 1980 Floor Show, the “Berlin” phase, et al.—was always in the service of accessing and inflaming some unexplored inner mania or ardor that could only be communicated in costume and by pretense. Fredrick practices a counter-art of cooled passion antithetical to the rock charter and difficult to master. He tends to write and sing from a position of equanimous retrospection toward dark or troubling feelings, once strong but now distant, pains too long ago sustained to hurt anymore and insoluble anyway. “Once upon a yesteryear” is one of his characteristic song-opening lines. An even more nostalgic opening line from “Would You Were Here” is: “Harking back to that first time I saw your face / It’s a trip that I must admit I often take.”

Fredrick prefers faded memories to living agonies, Wordsworthian “emotion recollected in tranquility” to Rimbaudian dérèglement de tous les sens. Rock music has always favored the latter. It’s an art form driven by lovers and sufferers, agitators and addicts, the young and restless. Fredrick—or the character he plays in the Black Watch—is a skeptical but sanguine morning papers guy, waking to his morning coffee after a night of reading novels, soberly taking in the (bad) news of the world, heeding the mews of his heart, and writing dolorous but droll mementi mori in a mood that might best be called “After All Is Sad, Undone”, to quote the felicitous word playing title of a song from The Morning Papers Have Given Us the Vapours. Then he’s as quick-and-dirty as any proper rock star. He walks into the studio, either with his usual band or other musicians; plugs in his fuzzy-or-washy, often slightly shoegazey guitar and strums it in strong squarish quarter notes; stands behind a microphone run through a lot of echo; sings in a voice that is something like a cross between Nick Cave and Robert Smith—and in less than a week, he has made an entirely new Black Watch LP.

Weird Rooms was speedily recorded not with his usual band or on Fredrick’s home turf in SoCal but in Austin, Texas, in the studio of producer and multi-instrumentalist Misha Bullock, who is in fact (what a surprise!) an Englishman. Bullock and Fredrick were joined by Fredrick’s son Chandler, who played on some of the songs, and by Bullock’s wife, Sara Minsavage-Bullock, who provided backing vocals. Weird Rooms is a cozy two-family affair.

Bullock’s avowed intention was to “skew John’s talents in a little bit of a different direction than he typically goes to, and make it, well, weirder”—hence the LP’s title, perhaps. After a playful opening mashup of song fragments and entertaining noises, the late-Beatlesque lead track, “Myrmidon” (“Ant” to most of us), gets right back to Fredrick’s familiar territory. “Myrmidon / On the lawn / Ancestry / Haunting me,” he sings twice, in a backward-looking regard, his voice sounding even more deathly than usual. “I’m blushing like a carnation,” he repeats near the end of the song, although it’s hard to imagine anyone with a voice as confident and authoritative as Fredrick’s ever blushing.

“Myrmidon” feels like an hors d’oeuvre, an ant marching in ahead of weightier creatures. It’s followed by the much more substantial and serious “Miles & Miles”. Slower songs suit Fredrick’s voice the best, and this one patiently marks the “miles and miles of difference / Between the way you speak / And the way you carry on / It varies by the week.” The track subtly builds musical layers, generating a tractor beam of interest, before arriving at a huge payoff of philosophical contemplation: “They say it’s easier to fool than disabuse a fool / That he or she’s been taken in by charlatans and ghouls.” That’s about as good as pop couplets get—and “ghoul” is an oblique nod to Fredrick himself, perhaps—but what drives the lines home is his shouted “Oh!” that punctuates them.

Occasions like this one, when Fredrick allows himself to break through his emotional curtain, are rare, and there could probably have been more of them, both in Weird Rooms and throughout the Black Watch’s discography. There’s no question that he practices the optimism he generally preaches in lines like, “Try with all your might / To look upon the side called bright / Though colored shadows cross and stop your way,” but sometimes that bright-side instinct needs an injection of intensity. Instead of outright emotion, Fredrick instead habitually barbs his lyrics with bits of sardonic mordancy, like this marvelous one-liner from “Swallowed”: “You took a magic marker to everything I tried / Now I’ve heard your latest stuff, I wish that I could lie.” He is never shy about firing BBs at those—from lovers to the government—who have failed him or themselves, let him down, or betrayed him. He would still be likelier to go on fooling a fool than to disabuse one, as would most of us. Fredrick sees the glint of callousness in all our eyes.

Like his lyrics, Fredrick’s capable but modest melodies can require a few plays to sink in. Spend some time with his songs, though, and most succeed in becoming familiar friends, the kind you’re comfortable having hang around the house, sitting on the sofa nursing a drink while making low-voiced, ironic but witty conversation and observation without demanding urgent attention. As a consequence, it can be easy to take the Black Watch for granted, almost as if it has all gotten a little too easy and effortless for Fredrick. To be sure, jetting off with your son to a stranger’s studio in Texas and recording an album in six days suggests a rather casual investment in one’s music. It may be true that Fredrick gave Misha Bullock complete license to have his way with the songs and make them weirder, but other than a little mild sonic byplay and a few jocular interstitial tracks, June’s Weird Rooms is unlikely to strike most ears as sounding wildly different from April’s The Morning Papers Have Given Us the Vapours, a Record Store Day release made by Fredrick with his customary bandmates, Rob Campanella and Andy Creighton.

Song for song, The Morning Papers (shrewd wordplay on Mourning) is probably not quite the equal of Weird Rooms: some of it sounds perhaps a little too offhand; there are places where it’s hard not to think Fredrick should have rerecorded his vocal take; and it takes a while for the LP to gain steam overall. Nonetheless, heard as what may turn out to be a very late entry in a soon-to-be shuttered recording career, The Morning Papers Have Given Us the Vapours is the more haunting of the two releases, especially as it nears its end.

Side Two’s “There & Here” has two qualities that are rare for Fredrick: it’s fast and it rocks. It also takes a risky stance in sounding almost blasé about a friend who killed herself: “She jumped from a seventh-story window / I suppose she’d had enough / Oh well, what shall we order in for lunch?” (It helps to remember that he’ll do anything for a laugh.) Fredrick follows it with “In Two Different Ways”, which leavens “There & Here” by opening: “I like to show my human side/ It’s human of me to [or “too”] / It’s the side that makes me like / You and you and you.” The propulsive “Much of a Muchness”—another of Fredrick’s literary titles (Lewis Carroll in this case)—encourages us to “go ahead and have a laugh / Raise a glass to absent friends,” e.g., the suicide victim, one of so many people of whom we expected too much.

The Morning Papers’ penultimate song, whose very British title is “Oh Do Shut Up”, is a little ditty that would almost be appropriate for a children’s show were it not for the lyrics: “You’re such a loser / You always have to win / There’s you talk-talking / Can’t get but one word in.” That phrase is “shut up”, which the singer counsels this loser to do repeatedly in the chorus, “shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up” ad infinitum. The ingenious stroke here is that Fredrick has given the lead vocal for “Oh Do Shut Up” to Kesha Rose, whose deadpan delivery makes the song a near-comedy and suggests that it is a satire of Fredrick himself. It doesn’t matter whether it’s his inner monologue given to someone else to sing or his rendering of some scolding he received from a former lover or friend: the song is a hilarious—and, once again, mordant—act of ventriloquism aimed at the puppeteer.

The Morning Papers closes with its title track, a drumless rant—layered acoustic and electric guitar, with an ambient keyboard part—in which Fredrick chastises “the kids of today [who] don’t know the names of the bands that they rip, the riffs that they trip”. He’s got news for them: they ain’t news. The reason the morning papers will give these callow epigones the vapours—English idiom for lightheaded ill humor (or humour, if you must), neurasthenia, and depression—is that they aren’t in them. In our social media age, in which we are all encouraged to project our image all over the place and seek attention, everybody is a star, and everybody is nobody.

Taken as the end of a song mini-cycle with the suicide of “There & Here” and the barely veiled self-loathing in “Oh Do Shut Up”, “The Morning Papers”‘ sublimation of an oldster’s bitterness over his lack of fame makes for a powerful, raw, enraged album closer. Although Fredrick maintains his British accent, his customary tone of burnished regret is replaced by forthright anger and frustration. He may have finally had it. This year’s third Black Watch album, the one already mixed and likely to be released soon enough, is called Bye. “Read into that pun what you will,” Fredrick warned.

If he does finally shut off the valve and shutter the Black Watch, will the same people who dismissed their prolixity—two dozen albums in three dozen years—suddenly find themselves wishing for more of what they dismissed when it was plentiful? What will Fredick do for his next act? He has written five novels and could turn his attention to writing exclusively for the page. But what if he returned to the studio without the Black Watch, his literary affect, his British accent, and his so-much-for-the-muchness resignation? If he loaded his pen, voice, and guitar with the late-life anger and bite The Morning Papers suggests he has in ample reserve and sang to us in his vernacular Californian, we might finally be startled into giving him the ear he deserved to begin with.

RATING 7 / 10