The Willard Grant Conspiracy have recently done a bit of experimentation but some not of their own choosing. After doing a collaboration with Telefunk that had mixed results, the band set out from its trusty confines of Boston to head out West to desert country without the big label behind them. Lead singer Robert Fisher is still doling out those alt.country gems that the band has perfected the last four albums, but with some 30 musicians lending a hand, one might think that too many cooks are spoiling the musical broth here. However, the songs and the craftsmanship going into each is quite evident just by listening to the first song, “River in the Pines”, a track from the Alan Lomax collection that could be the perfect melding of Marty Robbins and the Handsome Family. Featuring fiddle and a slight Latin or Mexican feeling, the track slinks along with Fisher’s vocals the focal point. And from that point on, Willard Grant Conspiracy take you down another dark and dirty road.
“The Trials of Harrison Hayes” isn’t a traditional number like the previous one, but the tone and feel is there. Assisted by Jess Klein on harmony vocals, the song is a contemporary version of mountain music. “If the spirit moved my words / I’m sure that my words would be miss-heard [sic]”, Fisher sings before a lovable fiddle and piano play off one another. And the refrain goes on just long enough without being considered filler. A lot of these songs could also be mistaken for Celtic or Irish ballads, especially the mandolin-driven “Beyond the Shore”. Fisher seems to recall Springsteen and the Clancy Brothers on this track as he talks about moving on and a “long black veil”. Josh Hillman’s violin also adds the perfect touch on the bridge. Another accompaniment takes place on “The Ghost of the Girl in the Well”, with Kristin Hersh giving great vocals as Fisher weaves between speaking and singing the lyrics. There is also a touch of quirky spacey rock to the song, possibly from the saw David Michael Curry uses here, creating more tension as the song creeps along.
Willard Grant Conspiracy seem content on moving through this record with a feeling that there is little else to do or care about besides taking the time to enjoy the ride. “Twistification” is another gorgeous performance that brings to mind Dylan or Young circa Silver & Gold as Fisher talks about leading her like a pigeon. Here, though, the song seems to lose just a bit the longer it goes, although there are some shining moments near the conclusion. A blues-based “Another Man Is Gone” is more aggressive and tense, resembling the latest album from Eels with Hillman’s violin falling in line with that of John Cale. Fisher lets loose here vocally, with better than expected results. Unfortunately, the band tends to go off the rails with the pop infected, trumpet-laced “Soft Hand”, which has a basic chord structure but seems out of place with the rest of the album. Jess Klein and Blake Hazard guest on the song, but Fisher seems ready to carry it himself.
“Rosalee” goes back to the original sound of the record: sparse, singer-songwriter driven, and quite lovable. The music is also given enough room to breathe, something few bands are capable of, but Golden Smog comes to mind on this track. Sounding as if they’re recording it in one take in one room, Fisher seems to get the most out of his musicians. “Fare Thee Well” is another traditional-sounding tune that is probably the sleeper on the record—weary but still treading water, Klein’s vocals are eerily similar to those of Emmylou Harris. And just when you want the album to go on another five or six tracks, Fisher ends it with “The Suffering Song”, a perfect closer that is slow, somewhat morose but with a bit of light at the end. “The suffering going to come to everyone someday”, Fisher sings to finish a record that has not one suffering second. This album should solidify them among Americana’s best!