The Willard Grant Conspiracy violates one of the fundamental guidelines of music: that bands which employ any non-traditional collective designation like ‘conspiracy’ or ‘project’ are only doing so to make their underwhelming presence seem far more meaningful. Instead, this now twelve-year-old conspiracy succeeds in overwhelming listeners with the breadth and depth of its sound, and continues to draw more and more talented musicians into its Byzantine orbit. At the center of this web of intricacies is Robert Fisher, whose craggy, weathered voice sounds like it’s been salvaged from a whiskey-soaked wax phonograph cylinder circa 1900, and has been the sole point of continuity for the loose-knit collective for its entire history.
Despite his Bostonian roots, about as far from the Mason-Dixon Line as one can get spiritually if not geographically, Fisher has cultivated a rich, wonderfully affecting alt-country sound in the vein of the folksy, modernist attitude of Howe Gelb or the Sadies. It’s true Americana, the kind of music that ironically finds better reception in Europe than the United States. It’s no surprise that Let It Rol was released across the pond first, almost a year ago, allowing a slow but steady groundswell of support to build and hopefully carry it to open ears back home. The band has been a consistent critical favorite, and their last album, 2003’s Regard the End, was perhaps Fisher’s most ambitious and astounding work to this point. Steeped in dark, somber minor-key ballads, Regard the End is an album-length meditation on loss, change, and vitality, featuring a haunting duet with Throwing Muses’ Kristen Hirsh on “The Ghost of the Girl in the Well”. It’s a devastating track, an absolute killer; the kind that songwriters dream of and music lovers play over and over in their heads for years.
Now, Fisher has uprooted his cadre from their chilly northeastern environs for the sunny shores of southern California, replacing the stark, Puritan atmosphere of Boston with the lingering sense of inevitable upheaval in Palmdale, along the San Andreas Fault. The new locale makes the group’s new album title, Let It Roll, sting a little more, leading one to assume it reference to the precarious nature of the ground they’ve laid their stakes in, and not the proverbial “good times” that clearly have no place on a Willard Grant Conspiracy record.
The mournful trumpet that signals the opening of “From a Distant Shore” bears this assumption out, leading listeners into a very subdued sketch of a departing soldier whose steely, quiet reserve belies an emotional tumult that only peaks out from beneath the stiff upper lip. It’s Fisher’s own “Dover Beach”, perhaps a tad unsubtle and on-the-nose, but the honesty and straightforwardness is disarming and lays out the bleakness of the soldier’s duty more effectively than any couched metaphors or allusive vagueness would.
The title track follows, immediately shaking off the dour dust of “From a Distant Shore” with a long and rollicking intro of clattering drums, sawing fiddle, and jittery, pounding piano. “Let It Roll” seems to stand in open contradiction with the themes of Regard the End. Where the previous album took a measured, introspective view toward the end of life, “Let It Roll” is an inflamed, bilious assault that seems to cast off any and all caution for an attractively insouciant and devilish demeanor. “There’s no room in heaven”, sings Fisher, his deep baritone charging ahead full of fire, “Now or hereafter / There’s nothing to dying / Except a rope’s soft whisper”. It’s a renunciation, a disillusioned gasp of recklessness that’s seductive and brings down a great, smiting weight.
Though the Conspiracy finds success with the up-tempo kick-in-the-tail of “Let it Roll”, that doesn’t mean they’ve forgone the subtle ballads that have endeared them to their fans. “Dance with Me” is a delightful waltz, a nice tune for late-night courting, or remembering loves lost on dimly-lit downtown streets. It shares an almost too-similar tempo and cadence with “Mary of the Angels”, which may put some off, but in the context of the whole album the pair come off as more of a suite where both hold up their respective ends. “Ballad of a Thin Man” stretches Fisher out of the familiar trails, casting him in a Waits-like lounge act, stumbling along the stuttered drums and arrhythmic, sloshing guitar lines. It’s not a perfect-fit, but Fisher wears it as best he can, making it a good choice for the soundtrack to your next lost weekend.
While Let It Roll doesn’t quite rise to the level of calm beauty that Regard the End achieved, it’s a worthy addition to the Willard Grant Conspiracy’s thick catalogue, an off-kilter album of fiery, fun alt-country that will satisfy anyone with a deep love of well-developed and thoughtful Americana.