published: 28 /
Spectacular long awaited fifth album from the American alt. rock ensemble, the Willard Grant Conspiracy, which, despite being largely about death, proves to be against-the-odds curiously life affirming
Robert Fisher, the frontman with the Willard Grant Conspiracy, has had a difficult few years since his band's last studio album, 'Everything's Fine', came out at the end of 2000. In 2001, guitarist Paul Austin, Fisher's long-term cohort in the group, and the Boston consortium's only other full-time member, left the band to move to Seattle. Last year the band also lost its deal with its regular record company, Slow River, the Massachusetts-based label which had released all four of its albums to date. Many predicted the end for the Willard Grant Conspiracy, but Fisher has always been a fighter, and has now come back with arguably the best album of his career, the in-part ironically-titled 'Regard the End'.
This fifth WGC album was recorded over the course of a year. Sessions for it began in Slovenia and then continued in London before the album was finally rounded off in Boston. It has been released in Britain on Loose Records, and the rest of Europe on the German label Glitterhouse.
Since the release of the band's third album, 'Mojave', in 1999, Fisher has looked increasingly towards the past for reference, and four of the eleven tracks on 'Regard the End' are reworkings of traditional songs, which feature the original lyrics of these old compositions, but new music. Many of Fisher’s own songs on the new album are engrained with a similar timeless quality, and, steeped in folk lore,again balance the traditional with the modern.
The number of musicians involved in any Willard Grant Conspiracy album is always impressive. The statement "If someone says they play with us, they probably do” is printed on the sleeve of each new WGC recording as a running joke, and 'Regard the End' has a role call of over 20 names.
Viola player David Michael Curry, field organist Peter Linnane and bassist Pete Sutton are all veterans of previous Willard Grant Conspiracy albums. Other members of the entourage such as guitarist and mandolin player Simon Alpin, pianist Yuko Murata, violinist Josh Hillmann, Lambchop trumpeter Dennis Cronin and Ted Leo guitarist Drew O'Doherty have toured regularly with the WGC over the last three years, but until now have not yet appeared on a recording.
There are several notable guest appearances as well. Chris Eckman from the Walkabouts, who helped to initiate the original Slovenian recording sessions, turns up on piano and guitar. Solo artist Jess Klein, the Willard Grant Conspiracy's former label mate on Slow River, provides backing vocals on four songs, while the Throwing Muses' Kristin Hersh shares joint vocals with Fisher on another track 'The Ghost of the Girl in the Well'. Paul Austin meanwhile bookends the album and appears playing acoustic guitar on both the first number, ‘River in the Pines', and also the last song, 'The Suffering Song'. The majority of the songs have a semi-orchestral feel, with Fisher's rumbling, baritone vocals serving as a central focus, and one or more of the many instruments on display being pushed to the front.
‘Regard the End’ takes it name as well from the Fisher family motto, the philosophy of which is to live life with "regard to the end", accepting that it is temporary rather than permanent and, therefore, by doing so to end up living a more fulfilled existence. Perhaps predictably the body count on the album is rather high. The meandering, traditional opening number, 'River in the Pines', thrusts Curry and Hillmann's gently waltzing strings to the fore, and tells of the drowning of a Wisconsin river boy in a boating accident, and the death shortly afterwards of his new wife from a broken heart. The hymnal 'Beyond the Shore' is written from the perspective of a dying man. 'Ghost of the Girl in the Well', a song which originally appeared on an unreleased CD 'Long Haul Final Test' from 1995 by Fisher and Austin's previous band, the Flowers Tamers, culminates with Fisher and Hersh bouncing crescendoing, echoing vocal harmonies off each other,and is the story of a 14 year old slave girl, who has drowned falling down a well, after hiding from the master who has repeatedly raped her.
Yet oddly enough, despite its often grim subject matter, 'Regard the End' is a far from maudlin record. The beautiful 'River in the Pines' is a testimony to devotion. ("Now with every raft of lumber that comes down the Chippeway/There's a lonely grave that's visited by drivers on their way/They plant wildflowers on it, in the morning fair and fine"), while the main character in 'Beyond the Shore', worn out by years of toil, is happy to meet his maker. ("I've worked, but not in vain/I'm bound to go beyond this shore/In Glory I will be placed"). Even the tragic ghost girl, her remains lost in the well where noone has even found her, seems to have found a solitary sort of peace at last.
'Fare Thee Well' , a break-up song which appears towards the end of the album, perhaps captures this quality best . It combines reflective, minimalistic piano work from Murata with softly lilting, elegant trumpet playing from Dennis Cronin.."Faith can heal a lot of wounds/Here at night in this rented room/I look to ceiling and find a reason to carry on" croons Fisher, summing-up in a stanza the whole curious against-the-odds life-affirming process of 'Regard the End'.
The album is closed with the epic and Gothic 'The Suffering Song'. It tells of the death of a mother, and her previously close family's sudden resulting estrangement from each other even while she still lies dying ("My Sister's in the kitchen/My Brother's laying out his guns/My Father's pacing in the hallyway/Looks like they've all figured out a way to run"), but, even this, for all its grandiloquent bleakness, has its moments of optimism also. Its narrator , although devastated by the loss of his parent, is able to throw off his family chains and, breaking free from their confines, to face up to life much stronger and wiser on his own. ("I know there's life beyond this ridge/We can keep the truths that we all know/And value what we keep").
The Willard Grant Conspiracy are often seen to be depressing, but 'Regard the End', although never shying away from tragedy and pain, is an extraordinary testament to the human spirit and faith. Fisher has recently returned to live in his home state of California after twenty years away living in Boston. It will be fascinating to see where this talented, versatile musician and the ever-eclectic Willard Grant Conspiracy will go next.
River in the Pines
The Trials of Harrison Hayes
Beyond the Shore
The Ghost of the Girl in the Well
Another Man Is Gone
Fare Thee Well
Day Is Passed and Gone
The Suffering Song