From The Desk Of The Black Watch: The Poems Of John Tottenham

John Andrew Fredrick has spent the last three decades as the sole constant in one of music’s most perfect and unheralded rock outfits, the black watch. Using the Beatles as a tracing template, Fredrick has applied a kitchen-sink approach to the album at hand since his 1988 debut, St. Valentine, the opening volley in a catalog that would ultimately encompass 15 albums and five EPs, all of which inspired varying levels of critical halleleujahs and a deafening chorus of crickets at the nation’s cash registers. Fredrick will be guest editing all week. Read our band new feature with him.

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Los-Angeles-by-way-of-Kent poet John Tottenham has amassed a formidable following doing stand-up poetry round this here metropolis by amusing-to-death his audience with verse that’s all about his life as a self-professed failure. Despite the fact that he’s published two well-received (in alternative circles, of course, for who but superkooks and poety poets themselves and grad students in English reads poetry these dark days?) and at times darkly funny volumes, like this and this—no mean feat. Tottenham considers himself an unmitigated no-hoper, a superloser, a “failed visionary” (courtesy his website) and master of wasters, a laird of lament and bard of supremely beatific disappointment and hopelessness. Sound fun? It is, actually. Try not to smile at lines such as this, from the snidely titled “Rush Hour”: “I thought I was dead, but, after a few seconds, I realized/That I was lying on the floor”; or this, from the assonance-laden and gallopingly dubbed “Anomic Otiosity”: “For many years/I have sat down to do the work/That the world would be no worse off/Without, and I have not done the work.”

Have a gander at Tots in in-action, as it were: See how he fairly hectors the throng with tales of woe, his emotional entrails self-eviscerated for one’s amusement and delectation. You’ll find yourself laughing, on account of that’s easier and less embarrassing than bursting into tears. Artist/martyr, handsome devil, celebrity washout (total loss, sinking ship, lead balloon, stalemate), purveyor of glorious lassitude, ennui, accidie, otiosity, sloth, languishings, self-contempt, “the horror, the horror,” this is a literary lion in the making. Though, when mass admiration descends, John Tottenham will most likely find a way to turn it into a catastrophe. I love that word: It comes from the Greek for “overturning”—something disastrous for a sea-faring people who didn’t necessarily require sailors to take swimming lessons. Come dip into Tottenham’s poems; you might drown your own silly sorrows in your tears of laughter at his inimitable encomiums to himself-as-grave-disappointment (to himself).

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Essential New Music: Sera Cahoone’s “From Where I Started”

After several successful albums that leaned more toward the rock side of the country-rock equation, Seattle songwriter (and former drummer) Sera Cahoone heads back to her roots. The classic country songs of heartbreak that originally inspired her to play music inform From Where I Started’s tunes, but the tunes here are understated. The atmospheric arrangements give the material a feel that’s more reminiscent of empty bedrooms than smoky barrooms. Cahoone’s acoustic fingerpicking and a soft loping beat drives “Always Turn Around,” a song that equates stage fright with the fear of intimacy. Her whispered vocal is steeped in resignation and regret. “Dusty Lungs” is a lament for a young miner facing a slow death, featuring Cahoone’s haunting multitracked harmonies and Annalisa Tornfelt’s ominous fiddling. The album closes on an upbeat note with “House Our Own,” wherein the singer daydreams about an ideal relationship in a home by the side of a lake, far from the city.

—j. poet

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MAGNET Feedback With David Bazan

I’ve spent most of my life consuming and making music, and yet I feel my musical understanding has only just begun to mature. I have a lot to look forward to. We all do. It was joyful and challenging to carefully listen to and write about these songs MAGNET curated for me. I’m grateful for the opportunity. Peace and love to us all. —David Bazan

Cat Power, “The Greatest” from: The Greatest
One fall night in 1998, after playing our first show ever in the Twin Cities with my band at the time, Pedro The Lion, we drove across the river to the 400 Bar in Minneapolis to catch Cat Power on her Moon Pix tour. Accompanied by a drummer and guitarist, her hair covering her face pretty much the whole set, Ms. Marshall captivated me (and everyone else in the room) with those great early tunes and her coy charm, but most of all with her unbelievable voice. Now, having been an active fan for 19 years, I sit and listen to 2006’s The Greatest, and I notice her voice is loaded with even more ache, more mournful knowing than before. I’ve heard this song many times but apparently without ever actually giving myself over to it the way one does listening in headphones, alone in one’s room, focused on nothing else but the river of sound and feeling. Turns out this river really breaks me up. I don’t literally understand what she’s singing about and, as usual, heavy thoughts flow through anyway. I hear a funeral march, I mourn the wasteful hubris of youth, I accept that lasting wisdom is hard because it flows from loss. “Secure the grounds for the later parade.”

Bob Dylan, “Saved” from: Saved
This song, whose lyrics imply the basic Christian doctrines of original sin and salvation through faith in Christ, really moves. Dylan is channeling some blessedly rowdy gospel music here, and holy mother, the rhythm section is on fire, pounding out their shifting accents with enough desperate conviction to make you almost believe him … almost. Look, I’m not saying I think old BD was insincere at the time; it’s just a natural pitfall of manically expressing that “just been born again” enthusiasm. Eventually, one has to come back down the mountain and live life, and something about real life makes it hard to take extra-fervent expressions like this seriously as much more than an artifact of a previous understanding. (Whoa, I really bring the baggage.) So, yeah, for me that’s the internal wrestling match I experience listening to “Saved.” Dylan is a transcendent performer and lyricist, this is a great song, and the rhythm section kicks so much ass. So I get to try to turn that other part of my brain off and just feel the righteous energy. And when I can’t do that, I don’t mind wrestling.

Leonard Cohen, “Hallelujah” from: Various Positions
This is one of the great songs of all time. So good that there are two distinct versions of the song in circulation, the difference between them being only a change in the lyrics of the third and fourth verses. The lyrics in the “cover” version, first compiled and performed by John Cale (from extra verses sent to him by Cohen), though probably made popular to folks my age by Jeff Buckley, evoke in me the longing of a possibly doomed but deep romantic love to a degree nearly unrivaled in popular song. (“Love is not a victory march/It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah”). By my calculation, this version is heard more often, in part because it’s the one performed by most who cover the song, and in that sense is the more popular of the two. But for me, the version found on the album Various Positions is the even rarer gem, the one that saves my life a little bit. It lays out the size and shape of a crisis of faith line by line, one disconnecting doubt at a time, in a way that might leave one in despair if not for the defiant implication that all reaching out is meaningful even if no one ends up being there to reciprocate.

Ben Gibbard & Aimee Mann, “Bigger Than Love” from: Former Lives
“Stranded in Asheville/Failing to fix a broken head/You’re in California/Doing the work of lesser men.” This song is so lonely. Male and female voices taking turns filling in the details of years of disconnection in their relationship, almost like long-distance couples therapy. Painful. The signature ache in Mann’s voice really adds depth to the melancholy. But the very catchy chorus, “It’s bigger than love/Brighter than all the stars combined/It’s dwarfing the sun/Burning within my heart and mind” supplies the listener with an unexplained source of light at regular intervals that alternates with the bad news in the verses: bittersweet but overall leaving me with a sense that this is a postmortem. But then the tail end of the bridge lifts and connects with the final chorus, and a modest gain is achieved: By the end of the song they’re singing together. I’m a sucker for love. It feels like a start to me.

Damien Jurado, “The Way You Look” from: I Break Chairs
This song brings back a flood of fond memories. Jurado and I started playing in a band together in 1991, both still in high school. After years of playing in the different forms of that band together, then solo and band projects apart, he asked me to produce the album that became I Break Chairs for him in 2002. “The Way You Look” is from that LP. This song (and album) represent a rowdy but sweet rock ’n’ roll side of Damien that he hasn’t often shown, which is more than OK because the musical vein he’s currently mining both with Richard Swift-produced LPs and live with a band or solo is special to me, too. It all is with Damien, so I’m glad we captured it a little. I’m a fan of the dude’s tunes. He consistently makes music that inspires me.

Radiohead, “Let Down” from: OK Computer
For some reason, I didn’t want to like OK Computer when it first came out. One day, within a month of its release, my roommate, sensing my resistance, recommended that I go up to his room and listen to “Exit Music (For A Film)” and “Let Down” one after the other, turned up loud, on his nice stereo amplifier and his Yamaha NS-10 speakers. I’d heard “Let Down” wafting around here and there and liked it, if a little reluctantly, but this would be the first focused listen all the way through. So I took his advice, and it stands as one of the most memorable musical experiences I’ve ever had. I quickly fell in love with OK Computer. “Let Down” is still a top-five favorite song of all time for me.

The Long Winters, “Shapes” from: When I Pretend To Fall
I watched my friend and Long Winters songwriter/frontman John Roderick play this song solo electric one night in the summer of ’06 at an outdoor venue in an ancient town square in Zaragoza, Spain. I remember the hammer-on guitar playing vividly; so musical and inventive without being distracting. John’s warmth and wit come through so clearly here (as in all his work, really). There’s a playful, sparring almost-vulnerability in his lyrics and vocal delivery that never fails to pull me in. One of my favorite songwriters. Speaking of “pulling me in,” later that night I had the bizarre pleasure of being pulled behind a carful of my tour mates, hatchback open, me riding in Vic Chesnutt’s wheel chair, holding the back of the car Back To The Future style through the streets of Zaragoza, en route to the hotel.

Neutral Milk Hotel, “King Of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2 & 3” from: In The Aeroplane Over The Sea
Like with so many others of my favorite records, this one took a minute to sink in. “Jesus Christ, I love you” was hard for me to relate to initially for some reason. Maybe I couldn’t tell if he was mocking or sincere and couldn’t easily deal with the ambiguity. Still not totally sure. But at some point I found a way to open up to it all, regardless, and I’ve since had some pretty wonderful and heavy times listening to Aeroplane Over The Sea. There’s a sort of feral earnestness to all these songs, a desperate frankness that indicates just how enormous the stakes are. One of the heaviest records I can think of.

Joni Mitchell, “Blue” from: Blue
This is the first time I’ve listened to this song all the way through to my knowledge (now half a dozen times in the last couple days). There are many gaping holes in my musical education, and I’m realizing now that Joni Mitchell is a huge one. The first thing this song says to me is that anything is possible in folk songwriting, and that I’m uptight without even knowing it. The freedom and fluidity of the musical phrasing is stunning. I hear a formidable thinker and experiencer of the world communicating at peak level. I believe my Joni Mitchell immersion phase just began.

The Shins, “New Slang” from: Oh, Inverted World
Before she was in kindergarten, I took my daughter to see the Shins play at Showbox Market in Seattle. (She loved the song “New Slang” more than any other at the time and could often be heard chirping the falsetto vocal hook around the house.) Night of, we got bundled up, met a buddy for dinner before the show, had a little dessert, then finally found a spot near the back of the main floor to watch the band (kiddo up on my shoulders). They played “New Slang” within the first four songs, and she was ecstatic. She grabbed my chin with both hands and yanked my head up so that my eyes were looking straight up into hers: “They’re playing it!” Tears in her upside down eyes as she started singing along. Once the next song started, I felt a tap tap tap on the top of my head (our signal for when she was ready to go home). “I’m still hoping to hear ‘Caring Is Creepy,’” I pleaded. “OK,” she said, “Three more chances, then can we go?” I agreed to her very reasonable terms. “Caring Is Creepy” is the next song they played. She grabbed my chin again. Tears in my eyes this time.

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From The Desk Of The Black Watch: London Vs. Los Angeles

John Andrew Fredrick has spent the last three decades as the sole constant in one of music’s most perfect and unheralded rock outfits, the black watch. Using the Beatles as a tracing template, Fredrick has applied a kitchen-sink approach to the album at hand since his 1988 debut, St. Valentine, the opening volley in a catalog that would ultimately encompass 15 albums and five EPs, all of which inspired varying levels of critical halleleujahs and a deafening chorus of crickets at the nation’s cash registers. Fredrick will be guest editing all week. Read our band new feature with him.

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Wherever you live, you have stuff you love about your city or town, and stuff you put up with and grin and bear the unbearable about it. That’s why, these days, I try to toggle as much as I can between the two places I love most: LDN and LAX. The realities/myths are that you can’t live either place without a ton of dosh, but that’s just not true and I’m living proof of it. On account of I don’t go out in L.A. (save to the tennis courts and to the studio), and going out in London’s easy peasy because just walking round, taking in the joint, doesn’t cost you anything and rewards you in total wonderment withersoever you roam. You do need to buy a pint or in my case just two per, but that’s manageable. Tennis is another matter, but I do get to play when I go over to The Big Smoke. My friends in the Damn Vandals are keen tennis guys. That’s about all I’ll say about those two cities. As much as L.A. gets slagged, I am chuffed to know many great, ambitious real artists here and cool impresarios. Not just people who think they’re artists just ’cause they go round saying weird things. So many of them. Their name’s legion. In London, you don’t have that. People tell you to piss off straight away. No one tells anyone the truth in L.A. As Pauline Kael rightly opined, “It’s where you can die of encouragement.” It’s hard to be an artist anywhere, really. But those are my cities. I love New York, but I’m not tough enough for you, Big Apple. All my NYC friends can smugly stow that one away. My kid lives there and loves it. But he’s a tough guy. I’m a sweetie, me. With a tart bite.

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Essential New Music: Diamanda Galás’ “All The Way” And “At Saint Thomas The Apostle Harlem”

Every time Diamanda Galás sings, it feels like something bad is going to happen. Whether it be her originals or gutting recognizable standards from the inside out with her astronomical range and avant-garde piano playing, the music that passes through Galás’ lens feels like guerilla incantations being delivered at the gates of hell moments before the Earth’s crust opens up and swallows humanity whole. Or worse. The wild-eyed-wilder-lunged chanteuse’s two new albums fall along this unnerving/horrifying line: All The Way funereally reimagines Sinatra, Thelonious Monk and Johnny Paycheck as well as longtime live favorite “O Death,” while At Saint Thomas The Apostle Harlem offers live performances of Italian, German, French and Greek “death songs” in her inimitable style. Both elicit a simultaneous sense of terror and wonder as to what demons are flowing through her bloodstream and how she’s managed to harness them for the power of artistic good.

—Kevin Stewart-Panko

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In The News: Matthew Sweet, Jeff Tweedy, John Coltrane, Shabazz Palaces, Bob Marley, Allen Ginsberg, Tom Petty, Waxahatchee And More

Matthew Sweet returns with new studio album since 2011 Tomorrow Forever on June 16 via Honeycomb Hideout/Sony/RED. It’s a 17-track CD/double LP … Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy will release Together At Last, a new solo acoustic collection, June 23 via dBpm … On June 9, Rhino will release Trane: The Atlantic Collection, featuring nine songs from recording John Coltrane made for Atlantic between 1959 and 1961. The next week, mono LP reissues of Giant Steps, Olé Coltrane, Coltrane Plays The Blues, Bags & Trane and The Avant-Garde will be available, with a mono CD version of Giant Steps due July 7 … Shabazz Palaces will release Quazarz: Born On A Gangster Star via Sub Pop on July 14 … Island/UMe celebrates the 40th anniversary of Bob Marley & the Wailers’ classic Exodus with four separate versions of the LP new month. Exodus 40: The Movement Continues (featuring the original album and a Ziggy Marley “restatement” of the LP with be available as both a two-CD set and a three three-CD package, featuring Exodus Live). Also available will be a limited-edition gold-vinyl version of the original LP, plus a super-deluxe four-LP, two-seven-inch set that includes the original album, Exodus 40, Exodus Live, Punky Reggae Party and more … The Sword has released its first live album, Greetings From…, via Razor & Tie … On June 23, 311 will issue 12th studio album Mosaic (BMG) … Allen Ginsberg’s 1970 Songs Of Innocence And Experience will be released on CD for the first time June 23, with a second disc of rarities and previously unissued songs … Matthew Ryan has released new LP Hustle Up Starlings, produced by the Gaslight Anthem’s Brian Fallon … Six Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers albums—She’s The One, Echo, The Last DJ, Highway Companion, Mojo and Hypnotic Eye—are available again as stand-alone vinyl titles via Warner Bros. … Glen Campbell’s final studio album, Adiós, will be released June 9 via UMe … Waxahatchee’s fourth album, Out In The Storm, will be released July 14 on Merge … Rhino celebrates the 20th birthday of Third Eye Blind’s self-titled debut June 9 with an expanded version of the LP that includes several unreleased recordings … Omar Souleyman’s new LP, To Syria, With Love, is out June 2 via Mad Decent … Willie Nile pays tribute to one of his idols with Positively Bob: Willie Nile Sings Bob Dylan, out June 23 via River House … Boomiverse, the third solo album by OutKast’s Big Boi, is out next month via Epic … UMe will issue expanded editions of Status Quo’s Blue For You, Just Supposin’ and Never Too Late on June 2 … ABBA’s classic Gold: Greatest Hits will receive a limited-edition reissue on gold-colored 180g vinyl on June 30 … Sarah Jaffe’s Bad Baby is due out July 7 via Kirtland.

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From The Desk Of The Black Watch: Musicals (And Samuel Fucking Johnson)

John Andrew Fredrick has spent the last three decades as the sole constant in one of music’s most perfect and unheralded rock outfits, the black watch. Using the Beatles as a tracing template, Fredrick has applied a kitchen-sink approach to the album at hand since his 1988 debut, St. Valentine, the opening volley in a catalog that would ultimately encompass 15 albums and five EPs, all of which inspired varying levels of critical halleleujahs and a deafening chorus of crickets at the nation’s cash registers. Fredrick will be guest editing all week. Read our band new feature with him.

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I abominate musicals, so I wrote one last year. That’s my motivation in a nutshell—I did the same thing with a screenplay a few years ago: wrote one in a week, sold it in a month, just to prove to my screenwriter friends that screenwriting’s not writing, it’s typing (to crib from Capote’s quip about Kerouac). You plug in a formula, rev up some characters, The End. Now musicals, people talking then bursting into sooooongggg!!! Dreadful. Such kitsch. And yet. I’m so in love with a dead guy that I just had to write a play about him and his buddy and biographer James Goddam Boswell. I think playwrights have the hardest job: You have to have a plot. And, for me, plots are for graveyards. I can’t plot. Plots do emerge in my novels from character—but I never ever lay them out; they just come. It’s thrilling to write that way. It’s sort of like songwriting: You pick up your Epiphone Casino and play one strange chord and go to one that answers it, in a way, in a word. Any old road, I wrote this thing called Dr Johnson And Mr Boswell: a kinda/sorta musical, and I had a table reading of it with some actor “friends” (you can’t be friends with actors; there’s no one there to be friends with) and now I have no idea what to do with it on account of I really don’t know anyone in theatre and can’t be bothered to go plumping round the fringey venues to try to find someone to stage it. It’s really pretty funny, though. And there are modern characters who interact with the 18th century ones. It’s about this beautiful recent PhD who doesn’t want to be an academic (I can relate to that!) and her ex-beau who’s having a hard time being a songwriter (uh, yeah), and she wants to make art and she goes to London and she and this former flame sort of rekindle their interest in art and each other by way of writing a play about her hobby horse, Sam Johnson—perhaps the greatest writer/man who ever lived. And the saddest and most tortured and human. Late in my career I became an 18th century guy. In grad school, you’re young and romantic and you get carried away with Keats and Shelley and Shakepeare and love and romance. Then you grow up and come to The Age of Reason. If you’re me. Read Walter Jackson Bate’s biography of Johnson. Read my pal Henry Hitchings’ recent book on The Great Cham. It’ll open up a whole new world of psychology and humanist thinking and gorgeous pathos for you. Then, if you’re a director and a literary one and you’re reading this, get in touch with me and I’ll send you a musical with really fun and funny songs and a lot of things to think about and some lovable characters and bawdy 18th century frilly witting charming cockles-warming stuff as well. Rollicking, eh?

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Essential New Music: Anjou’s “Epithymía”

To turn an axiom on its head, Anjou knows its history and is not repeating it. Robert Donne and Mark Nelson have plenty of history in common, having spent six years jointly crafting haunting mood music in Labradford. After that trio went on permanent hiatus 16 years ago, Donne dove deep into abrasive digital electronics with Cristal. Nelson mapped out a more circuitous path through the far corners of drone, dub and noir-ish ambience in Pan•American. Donne reunited with Nelson to contribute some bass to Pan•American’s last album, but Anjou’s new aesthetic stands apart from all of its past endeavors. They’ve abandoned songs entirely in favor of pulsing, predominately electronic pieces that radiate a warmth that contrasts dramatically with Labradford’s chilly austerity but makes perfect sense when you note that the title of this album is a Greek word for forbidden desire. Nelson and Donne know all about youthful alienation, and they’re happy to leave it in the past.

—Bill Meyer

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Essential New Music: Buzzcocks’ “Buzzcocks (mk.1) Box”

Hard to believe but it’s now 40 years since the Buzzcocks self-released Spiral Scratch. To celebrate, Domino has put together a suitably reverent and sumptuous boxed set featuring the aforementioned landmark plus Time’s Up, the Howard Devoto-fronted collection of demos, previously only available as a bootleg, plus countless assorted extras that have become de rigeur for any self-respecting boxed set these days. But why, you might ask, should we care? Because, frankly, Spiral Scratch in particular remains an absolutely epochal release, as historically important as, say, the Damned’s “New Rose” or the Pistols and Clash debuts in the launch of U.K. punk. By turns angular, arch and endearingly amateurish, it fairly whips along fueled by youthful exuberance and a surfeit of ideas. A peerless example of punk’s nascent DIY aesthetic, it single-handedly launched the British indie movement and kick-started the burgeoning Manchester scene, largely by proving relocation to the bright lights and rapaciousness of the London music biz was no longer a necessity. It’s the musical gift that just kept on giving, and for that we should all be eternally grateful.

—Neil Ferguson

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Normal History Vol. 425: The Art Of David Lester

Every Saturday, we’ll be posting a new illustration by David Lester. The Mecca Normal guitarist is visually documenting people, places and events from his band’s 33-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

Will He Change?

You lock him away from the rest of us.
Will he change?

You lock him away, you let him out and he does it again.
Will he change?

You lock him away.
You put him under ground.
Will he change?

Therapy. But will it help?
Will he change?

You give him drugs until his mind explodes.
Will he change?

“Will He Change?” from the album Calico Kills The Cat (K, 1989) (download):

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