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New Pick of the Week

October 13, 1994|MIKE BOEHM

The Black Watch

"amphetamines"

Zero Hour/Gotta Go

The album title notwithstanding, the Black Watch is--figuratively speaking--addicted to downers. The Los Angeles band's latest independent release finds it luxuriating in all the many shifting currents of romantic melancholia. John Andrew Fredrick, the band's founder and main songwriter, was an aspiring novelist and UC Santa Barbara literature instructor before he launched the Black Watch in 1988. The band's third album offers an almost Proustian catalogue of lovelorn wretchedness, but, like Proust, Fredrick and his Black Watch sidekick, singer-violinist J'anna Jacoby, know that the subject has enough facets to bear close and extended scrutiny. The album's primary theme, its layered but occasionally edgy and propulsive musical constructions and its pervasive Anglophilia make it a worthy companion piece to "Condition Blue," the fine 1992 album by the Jazz Butcher.

"Condition Blue" interrupted its sorrowful wallows with a couple of offbeat, wittily acerbic satiric rockers, and the Black Watch might have done well to avail its album of similar comic relief. But, while there is nothing here that hasn't been done before by the early R.E.M., the Smiths, the Cure, the Go-Betweens, Cocteau Twins and numerous other melodious thrummers and janglers, the Black Watch manages to sustain musical interest. Songs that lesser bands might let murmur away inoffensively in lullaby land have streaks of fuzz-tone abrasion coloring the edges. In "Letter," for instance, Fredrick treats himself to a delicious, soothing soak in pretty melancholy. But a faint touch of guitar distortion scrapes beneath the placid surface, a harbinger of acute pain that's ready to pounce when the narrator's temporary dosage of anesthetic sentimentality has worn off.

Jacoby's superb violin work can similarly tinge conventional sweetness with more complex feelings in the caressing passages. And when the Black Watch decides to rock--as it does often enough and well enough to keep a listener off balance--she invariably drives the attack with impressive frenzy. The band's mainly mild, but unpredictably stormy approach might be embodied in the romantic doormat of "Whatever You Need," who abjectly prostrates himself before an unattainable love interest, only to suddenly rise up and quietly snarl this passing thought: "Sometimes I just want to cup your pretty little face/And push out all your pretty little teeth."

Available from Zero Hour Records, 1600 Broadway, Suite 701, New York, N.Y. 10019. (212) 957-1277.

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