Written by: Dave Cantrell
If I’ve just skimmed the archives accurately – a solid if still slightly shaky ‘if’ – this is the tenth time my pen and I have tried to capture in this publication’s metaphorical little bottle even just a hint of the ageless pixie pop dust that seems to spill so effortlessly from every endeavor undertaken by the black watch (henceforth throughout this piece shortened as if on a monogrammed cuff to ‘tbw’ – in lower case as per the forever preference of band founder John Andrew Fredrick, a sly mix of modesty and vanity, tbh – as that inseparable ‘the’ always, rather archly, tends to throw a sentence’s rhythm a tad askew). Even if that tally is only loosely accurate [it’s accurate, though one was a retrospective – ed.], it means that, as we convene here, dear reader, for another wondrous tbw go-round, we’ve been aboard for nearly half the band’s run of full-lengths, this being their 21st and all. To the occasional reader this might imply, given the sheer number of new releases out there, that we have some sort of ‘thing’ for tbw but that’s not exactly accurate. What we have a thing for is extraordinarily good and lasting songcraft, a penchant that has found us nearly never missing a release from, say, The Monochrome Set or the late Pat Fish or Eyelids and the list, far more than one might expect, goes on and on much to (all of) our good fortune.
Full of the usual surfeit of aching and wonder and splendorous melancholy, the whole of Future Strangers (released March 24th) is cast in a brimming bright shroud that speaks to the Beatles, to the legendary Nuggets collection and its many pebbled offspring and a host of other timeless heyday signifiers while also speaking to the imagined conjuration of a tennis-obsessed SoCal John Cheever taking time off the court once more to gather with his longtime confreres (guitarists etc Andy Creighton and Rob Campanella) plus a handful of talented others to smash a few across the metaphorical net, as it were. The results, not unexpectedly, are, well, quite smashing. Literary, existential pop has, again, no matter the battles with doubt and conflicted desire, seldom sounded more casually sure of itself.
As if to underline the bevy of ironies that drive this artist’s work and by dint of which makes him something of a conduit for that most basic of human pursuits – love, of course, elusive and illusory as it so often is – we begin, where else, with “We Know Nothing” which sets out in a kind of mournful effervescence met by a vocal melody that’s pretty much a hook all on its own (which, it must be said, is pure Fredrick) before the ‘actual’ hooks even kick in, the most significant a guitar break that you’ll likely still be humming on your way to the grave. From there, segueing liaison-like, “Nothing Left to Say” takes the uptempo downtown, creating an exquisite ruckus even while acknowledging the end of a romantic dalliance (also so tbw), “The Neverland of Spoken Things” – song title of the year? – brings brass and cello to the party, albeit one wherein is raised toast after toast to regret as the track, pretty much impervious to all that, gently rages on (insert another thematically classic tbw parenthetical here).
At some point one may begin to wonder if…nah, let’s leave that until later, because first there’s “Wish I Had Something” with its tabla-dappled opening and overall groovy trance character finding the maharishi Fab Four brought back by cosmic chance to Santa Barbara and finding an inner – if still quite complicated – peace. Add to that the autumnal dreamstate of the title track, embedded in a thick and frankly gorgeous haze of lo-fi distortion, Fredrick drifting with acceptance toward the inevitable (read that as you will). Then add “Off You Go Redux!”, exhuming the cast of The Graduate (“Cheers to you, Mrs Robinson” it cleverly reverently begins) to get their take on the mess we’ve made of the mess they themselves wrestled with over a half-century ago, a not uncommon dynamic in the tbw camp as “In My Head” confirms a couple tracks later (sample couplet: “You and I were talking but yet not quite / looks and little gestures not quite right“) before “Julie 3”, strings and acoustic in deft cahoots like, well, like a couple entwined, ends this journey on a suitably valedictorian note, the singer as unabashed in his declaration of love as we’ve heard lo these many years.
Another triumph, then, of the sinuously earworm will of one John Andrew Fredrick (with big ups, by the way, to the mastering of Sean Haney), just as we’d hope from a guy that, among his gratitudes inside the cover, gives thanks to the Oxford comma right there to the left of the Left Banke. In sum, and again, what we have here is a classicist at the continuing peak of his powers and by this point, some thirty-five years into the black watch reign, one might be led to ask if it’s feasible to become bored by unremitting rocknroll consistency like this with all its high-calibre songwriting and lyrics to die (or at least suffer) for and hooks a-plenty all raining down on you like some sort of popgeist manna. We certainly don’t think so – how’s that even possible? – but in any case that’s for the aesthetes and musicologists to answer. Down here in the SEM trenches we’re far too delighted to care.[Future Strangers available here from Atom Records]