By Jerrod Bohn
The denotative meaning of the word "watchhouse" is fairly obvious – a structure in which one maintains vigilance. For singer-songwriter Andrew Marlin, who – along with musical and domestic partner Emily Frantz – fronts the progressive bluegrass duo Watchhouse (formerly known as Mandolin Orange), the term’s personal connotation relates to a Chesapeake Bay hunting cabin where he passed “memorable, secluded, and meditative” time during his formative teenage years. Stripped of its penal or militaristic implications, the band’s updated moniker promises introspective music and lyrics that encourage listeners to reexamine the world around them and their presumed place within its hierarchy.
One song that exemplifies this sense of Watchhouse is “Beautiful Flowers,” from their 2021 self-titled album. Marlin’s softly-strummed acoustic guitar and Frantz’s vocals, elegantly set just a few notches above a whisper, brilliantly juxtapose the lyrics critiquing big oil, rumbling automobiles and the destructive impact of industry on nature. Inspired by Marlin’s reflections after hitting a monarch butterfly, “Beautiful Flowers” invites listeners to ponder their environmental impact. While some verses, like “Big oil’s got the money and the money goes round / Lord, we don’t know where it ends,” are more pointed in their social commentary, the song mostly operates with subtle restraint. Marlin’s words present images of a world “burning red hot” while Frantz’s voice quavers during the repeated observation that “we keep rolling on.” The decision to cut the music right as Frantz utters that line for a final time gives adequate silence for a reflective pause. How many times have we destroyed and just continued to our destinations?
There’s another reading of Marlin and Frantz's new musical identity that captures the dreamy soundscapes the duo conjures. It's a very literal interpretation, but perhaps it's not unreasonable to think of a “watchhouse” as being a building full of timepieces. Throughout Watchhouse and the six LPs they created as Mandolin Orange, Marlin and Frantz craft numbers that, at once, honor traditional American roots music and push the genre forward into the 21st century. The mandolin and fiddle-driven instrumental “Coming Down from Green Mountain” is a fine example of how the pair straddle being steeped in the past while keeping an alert eye focused on what’s next. The mid-tempo “Green Mountain” isn’t your typical rollicking bluegrass jam. The track continually threatens to transform into a plucky foot-stomper but always remains a smolder, the last logs burning on a campfire. Its pace yokes mind and body, creating room for inwardness as the body sways. While instrumentals are a foundational part of the musical backdrop from which Watchhouse has emerged, Marlin and Frantz are contemporizing their function.
Watchhouse was born out of Marlin’s private contemplation, but he and his wife want their music to be a space they share with fans. Lead single “Better Way” embodies this desire to bring genuine human connection back to the forefront. As the world emerges from a global pandemic, Marlin’s message to pry our attention away from screens is particularly pressing. “Now you’re alone, digging for bones, buried in your phone for hours / What a waste of a day,” Marlin observes over a haunting musical arrangement. That “Better Way” dissolves into a multi-textured, spacey drone might at first seem an odd choice for a tune so disparaging of electronic devices. “To me, it feels so free,” the singer says of that outro. After multiple listens, it’s hard to disagree. What Watchhouse unveils upon repeated attention is nothing short of transcendent, carrying listeners away from pointless distraction to a temple of communal consciousness. “Better Way” replicates the “admixture of silence and communion” Marlin felt in his own watchhouse, “suspended by stilts above a tidal island and accessible only by boat.”
“Better Way” also calls to mind the Merriam-Webster definition of "watchhouse," which posits the presence of a sentry. Such outposts have historically appeared at points of passage, such as a gate, where a person might move from one place to another. But what journey is this Watchhouse guarding? Around the three-minute mark in the song's music video, Frantz and Marlin’s black-and-white faces disappear. The blue circle in the center that once separated them expands and morphs into a series of circles that form a tunnel. As the animation continues, dots flicker in the background and blue and gray streaks appear, giving an impression of space travel, of astral projection. Eventually, a glowing white, roughly circular body emerges, emitting pulsating rays. As the song nears its dénouement, the white body blurs to blue before it, too, fades out. The destination has been reached; the voyage is at its end.
One realizes that Watchhouse is not only a guard but, through their music and lyrics, a metaphysical guide. Rather than deny access to what lies ahead, they facilitate the listener travel. They stand at the point where the particulars become the universals, where the individual unites with the collective.