This record resisted me, or rather it waited patiently for me to listen to it on its own terms. Driving to and from work in the summer heat? Forget it. While I’m puttering around the house? No way. Playing it at the store while I’m selling Jadakiss, Staind, and Tim McGraw? Hardly. It wasn’t until I actually told myself, “Sit down and listen to the damn thing” that Everything’s Fine started to reveal itself.
You might say that it’s unfair for a record to demand such effort and concentration, but how often in this world of aural wallpaper can we say that a record warrants our full attention? And how can we rightfully resent it or even voice one word of complaint about it? Everything’s Fine is a quiet, meditative record that’s as much about the helping hands of friends as it is about the traps one lays for oneself. And it’s not so much that the record requires deep meditation every time you listen to it, but you’ve got to give it a chance to get its hooks in you. After that, the rest takes care of itself.
Willard Grant Conspiracy, for lack of a better term, is considered part of the Americana movement. That element is certainly there, but the artistic vision is never secondary to stylistic trappings. Willard Grant Conspiracy makes music that is distinctly American, but which doesn’t share the twang, brimstone, or whiskey-fuelings of its Americana brethren. And while they’re hardly experimental, their only current peers seem to be Radiohead, for sheer artistic determination.
At the group’s core are frontman Robert Fisher (whose vocals are getting better by the year, and farther away from the love-it-or-hate-it deep croon he once shared with Crash Test Dummies’ Brad Roberts) and Paul Austin. Joining them are a baker’s dozen of talented musicians who flesh out the duo’s arrangements. The band’s secret weapon this time is probably pianist Peter Linnane, who provides a stately and emotional underpinning on practically every song.
That thoughtful piano tone kicks the album off in “Notes from the Waiting Room”, where it mixes with plaintive violin and harmonica. It’s the closest Everything’s Fine gets to their Americana label; the song takes definite cues from Appalachian music, but only in the most indirect, ghostly ways. “Christmas in Nevada” offers up road tales of border towns with a Byrdsy jangle. “Kite Flying” recalls R.E.M.‘s “Perfect Circle” in the way that it seems to effortlessly and modestly paint a mood. With hints of banjo in the background, gentle acoustic guitar notes set a gentle pace reminiscent of the way time slows down when you really turn inward. “Drunkard’s Prayer” is appropriately off-kilter and lurching as Fisher sings, “I’ll raise the glass as it raises me”. The song flirts with a slight Celtic vibe in the background, but again, it’s only there to provide flavoring for Willard Grant Conspiracy’s already formidable vibe.
It’s also not difficult to see songs working off of one another. Obviously, “Drunkard’s Prayer” makes a fitting brother to “Closing Time”, which feels like a long walk home on a cold night. But just as the album opens with the inviting and social “Notes from the Waiting Room”, it ends with the decidedly bleak and isolated “massachusetts”. In it, Fisher could just as easily be talking about a state of mind, in much the same way Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell once sang of “feeling Minnesota”. “The Beautiful Song”, with its ironic observations that “it all looks beautiful to me / rusted cars / battle scars . . .” places a filter through which the rest of the album can be observed.
Willard Grant Conspiracy haven’t reinvented the Americana record, but they have done something just as remarkable. They’ve made an album that works on multiple levels. You can accept the pretty, delicate arrangements as just that. You can dig into the lyrics of each song, threading your way through Fisher’s apparently complicated psyche. You can even play the English major’s favorite game of putting the disc’s 11 song-pieces into a coherent picture. You don’t need to do all of these things to enjoy Everything’s Fine, but you can, and that accessibility to multiple types of listeners should broaden Willard Grant Conspiracy’s appeal.
But we know it won’t. In the cacophany of Limp Bizkit, Britney Spears, and gangsta thuggin’, who’s going to notice this unassuming bunch off to the side, talking quietly amongst themselves?