Written by: Dave Cantrell
In a final gasp before I take a month off to concentrate solely on the post-punk niche that is – word has it – my professorial bailiwick, I offer up one more Lightning Strikes column to help steer you toward two absorbing, not-a-little intoxicating skewed-pop albums that both happened to be released on the same day (see above). Not exactly sure when I’ll return to general duty – estimates have it being somewhere between the first of October and the first of November – but in the meantime, have a look-see (look-hear?) at these two records. They are well worth your attention.
the black watch – “WITCHES!” (Atom Records)
John Andrew Fredrick, DBA the black watch for over thirty years now, is, I’ve come to realize, something of a soft-focus contrarian. In effect if not practice almost resolutely determined to maintain a certain level of comforting obscurity, he nonetheless persists in penning and performing songs in the jangly indie pop-rock idiom that have jukebox-ready radio friendliness written all over them. Songs that, when heard, curate attention. Given the contradiction inherent, one can’t help but wonder if aspirations to a greater rock’n’roll renown don’t yet percolate deep down in the old boy’s breast. Then there’s the fact that his, their (damn these pronouns as apply to ‘bands’ that are in truth but individuals!) most recent record prior to WITCHES!, entitled with perhaps a twinkle of irony The Gospel According to John – no saint he, apparently – was awash in certain sonic textures that couldn’t help but tweak the sensibilities of shoegaze fanciers worldwide (of which there as been a notable resurgence of late) and become in the process tbw’s best seller since possibly the early years of the Clinton administration, so – quelle naturellement! – Mr Fredrick decides, in response to something resembling success, that what the world truly needs at this juncture is a (mostly) drumless, quasi-dancey rock record whereon guitars – acoustic, gently electric, and, of course, bass – in all their intimate wisdom engage in a friendly competition with the singer’s steady West Coast voice. And y’know what? He very well just might be right.
Like the Creation Records artist that Alan McGee never signed, the black watch, drums or no drums, excels at this type of offhand (almost breezy, one dares say), winning melodicism that is at once seemingly designed with the pop purist in mind and riven with a spontaneity and immediacy sans affectation. And, while he can intend departure from one album to the next as he’s done here, Fredrick cannot, despite any such impulse, escape his own copy of the songwriter’s DNA expressing itself from song to song. An inveterate pop fetishist to the core, even if here were to try on (just for kicks) the role of obscurantist – he’s far too savvy for that, but still, if – he’d be, by reflex, an inadvertently generous one. As WITCHES! makes transparently clear via its host of unforced hooks and addictive progressions, the black watch cannot help him/themselves.
Nowhere more apparent than on instant classic “Georgette, Georgette” with its punched rhythm (this is one of the album’s two drum-accompanied tracks), its subdued Chillsian chime, gorgeously melancholy, and oh-so-graceful bridge – think McCartney hoping to sound like the Records while ringing Mystery Lawn Music‘s doorbell – the work on this record unmistakably makes the case that Fredrick’s reflexes have never been sharper. As sharp, maybe, but never sharper. It still feels (even as he ponders the prospect of this being the black watch’s last album) as if he could whip up literate, earworm-infested rock songs on command, before breakfast if necessary.
Witness the lengthy, layered-up “Dances for Sad Footsteps Slow” that kicks WITCHES! off, all propulsive drone and tom-tom thump that despite its 3+minute intro build and a descending coda of equal duration, never flags. Or “The Beginning of the End” in which the ache of romance is the joy of melancholy which is to say it’s almost mystical in it pure pop sadness. “Legerdemain”‘s twisting psych guitar providing sly acknowledgement to the message of curious wonder within, “The Weird Sisters,” hypnotic and plain-spoken both as it agrees as much as it disagrees with that Hobbesian ‘nasty brutish an short’ business, or the amber-tinged final track “Nineteen Sixty Six or So,” fatalistic, immortal, neither or both but certainly lovely in its hard-earned perspective, Fredrick’s romanticism proving to be stubbornly eternal as he quotes “Tomorrow Never Knows” in the fade-out and I’ll let you guess which bit.
This is where I’d planned on wrapping with these words or something similar: “Drumless though it may for the most part be, this record, its sound and intent, is – as the last song suggests if a bit between its lines – like peak Hollies if they’d peaked in 2018 (or it’s peak the black watch if they’d peaked in, yes, 1966)” and though I stand by those words it feels as if, after all these years of consistent service to the song, to the hook and the melody and the history embodied, that John Andrew Fredrick, DBA the black watch, deserves his niche in the atrium of pop achievers. Let’s let others that come after be compared to him from now on. [Git it here] √√√½
The Special Pillow – “Sleeping Weird” (Zofko)
If I may ask, how many ‘favorite cult bands’ (or ‘..artists’) is a person allowed to have? While that’s surely a rhetorical question as defined by the fact that I won’t really feel constrained in the least by whatever your answer might be, it nonetheless intrigues, if only because new – or new-to-me – candidates keep arriving in my mailbox at a rate somewhere between dizzying and disorienting. Latest one? The Special Pillow, the project of songwriter, ex-Hynolovewheel bassist Dan Cuddy whose fifth album under that name emerged this past July on his own label Zofko.
That fact, that this is his/their fifth album, is notable not only for the far-too-often-stated reason that your (apparently not-too) seasoned correspondent has just now become aware of them, but as well because the initial Special Pillow album arrived almost a quarter century ago (1994’s Ancient History; one assumes the title wasn’t meant to convey a kind of winking irony a generation down the road). Whereas viewed in its narrowest context this might suggest a certain laxity, the truth is in fact quite the opposite, Cuddy’s involvement in other gigs – either directly as with Hypno or as a sought-after bass-for-hire (Sleepyhead, XL Kings, et al) – shaping the opportunities for his Special Pillow pursuits. Though no doubt exasperating at times, the obverse side of that coint offers at least a couple advantages: one, his own compositions are given their best chance to fully develop, and two, that time eventually spent in the studio, due its relative rarity, couldn’t help but be imbued with a sense of moment. Or anyway so it seems on Sleeping Weird, where the songs as a whole feel destined in a way, polished with a vigorous restraint that marks both their craft and their ambition.
Largely a product, of course, of Cuddy’s playful/serious songwriting – there’s a quirky naturalism to it that reminds of Chris Butler plopped down on a Duplex Planet – credit must also go to the band personnel as it stands, Run On’s Katie Gentile on violin and viola (there from the beginning, actually), Peter Stuart from Headless Horsemen with his killer plethora of guitars – the two of them spiraling into a frenzied coda on “Flaming Skull” is an album highlight – and Eric Marc Cohen (Fly Ashtray) steadying the tiller on drums whatever the course which can and does vary rather wildly. Essentially an indie-casual Wrecking Crew, they’re the crucial element to this record’s snap and flow.
Surveying this album as a whole – the 60’s pop savvy of opener “Gilded Shrug” (enhanced by guest Ariella Stok’s Zombiesque organ track), the chimey jangle popsike of “Her Dogs” with its Byrdsy/power-pop guitar (and fiddle) fills, how “Cryogenic Tombs” splices an almost prog-psych jam sensibility onto a slow grunge tempo more suitable for Screaming Trees, the title track that flips from an intro suggesting a touch of light country into not-a-little-bit of churning ramalam with a Meat Puppets mojo goin’ on, “Hudson River Dreamboat”‘s jaunty swing boasting both a pop economy a la Squeeze and some Tex Mex horns for that geographic whipsaw effect before bowing out to finale “Paleolithic Axe,” the band paying exquisite, droney-melodic tribute to forebears and benefactors Yo La Tengo – you’d be forgiven for hoping there was an actual cult you could sign on to that was soundtracked at various points in the day by this or that track off of Sleeping Weird. Melismatic, fearless of intent and blessed with an off-hand pop experimentalism somewhere between Mercury Rev and Matthew Sweet, the darkened effervescence locked inside these songs has, shall we say, a certain allure. Let yourself be swayed. [pick Sleeping Weird up here] √√√
Feature photo by the amazing Trish Tritz