I've approached this review with some trepidation because, as I told John Andrew Frederick himself, I found it confusing. My first impression: it's an album that was half finished. The back half of the album seemed more and more like demos as it progressed, as opposed to the lush and layered production I'm used to from The Black Watch.
On second, third, and fourth glance, this album is still a bit confusing and complicated, but gradually begins to open up. It may have been my huge expectations or experience with the band, but finally songs like "There You Were" or "Scream" (which did not sparkle on first impression) began to come in better focus as standouts with more listens. And the solid nature of the album began to come through.
The Black Watch - "There You Were." You might as well listen, there's a lot more to read.
Compared to my 2013 album of the year (The Black Watch's previous album, The End of When -- album review here, 2013 Best of list here), the album still feels a little more stripped down and low-key, in terms of both intensity and mood, although you wouldn't know that if you had never heard the band before. It's unfair, objectively -- I am comparing this release directly with last year's best album, which I'm not doing with any other albums. So the issues I have with this album are probably more directly related to the artist's 25+ years of standout music, rather than to the album itself. It took me a while to realize I was not separating the two.
The other issue (and yes, this review is much more "stream of consciousness" than I typically write) is the grouping of four acoustic/non-drum songs to finish the album. After a number of listens, I realize THIS is where I am getting the demo idea from; they feel a bit same-y and incomplete as they are so stripped down and back-to-back-to-back-to-back. Once again, to my ears; for unknown reasons I'm having an oddly strong reaction. Would it be different if the song order were mixed up? Possibly. Or maybe the album is as stream of consciousness as this review is. Who the hell knows?
So: let's take those songs out. Let's pretend for the moment that this is a seven song album (or eight with just one of those acoustic songs). In that context, this is an excellent album, and one that I'm much more accepting of. Thus, I'm going to pretend this is an eight song album with three "bonus tracks." Now we're getting somewhere.
Which brings me to how to rate the album, which for me personally turns out to be a matter of curved grading. This is an excellent album when compared with all of the 2014 albums; but what I keep doing is comparing TBW to their extraordinary catalog. So while The End of When is overall better than this one, it's not fair to knock Sugarplum Fairy, Sugarplum Fairy down completely, as it's still better than 95-99% of what I'll hear this year. Thus it gets two ratings: an objective listener rating, and a rating as compared to the rest of the catalog.
CD Placement Rating: Objectively, this is another great Black Watch album, so it gets a Car iPod Rating. On The Black Watch scale, it's more a CD Rack/Portable CD Case rating, which speaks to the outstanding output of this band.