Willard Grant Conspiracy is a Boston ensemble led by vocalist Robert Fisher
and guitarist Paul Austin. With a revolving line-up, they play
elegant, evocative and melancholy country music that is a hybrid of
Lambchop and Walkabouts.
Fisher populates that sonic plateau with bleak, haunting stories of heartache
and loss. Even the frequently religious tones seem more concerned with the
absence of god than with his glory.
3am Sunday @ Fortune Otto's (Dahlia, 1996) is the tentative debut,
a stark, introspective monolith, humbly recorded at home, that already
displays their oddly plaintive tone
(Morning Is In The End Of The Day, Siren On The Rocks).
Flying Low (Slow River, 1998) is better recorded but still somewhat
unfocused and uncertain, despite a couple of confessional gems
(Evening Mass, Bring The Monster Inside)
New Atlantis is the pearl of the mini-album
Weevils In The Captain's Biscuit (Return To Sender, 1998),
that otherwise collects tracks already released.
The mini-album Radio Free WGC (Slow River, 1999), too, does not add
much to the repertory (five kitchen improvisations?).
Mojave (Slow River, 1999) is, instead, an accomplished effort that
overflows with solemn and depressed ballads.
Another Lonely Night borrows the pensive tone of Leonard Cohen, but
Fisher's vibrant and warm voice dominates the acoustic guitar's martial figure.
Love Has No Meaning is a hypnotic, slow-motion, self-pitying dirge
in the vein of Chris Isaak.
Catnap In The Boom Boom Room is, instead, a suspenseful tale in the
tradition of Nick Cave.
The nostalgic I Miss You Best crosses Neil Young's Harvest with
Bob Dylan's Knocking On Heaven's Door for a sad reflection on life.
The prominent country twang, the sprightly folk-rock jangle and the gospel
organ of Color Of The Sun moor a Van Morrison-ian delivery to a homey
The crowning achievement of this album and of their entire career is
the swirling, middle-eastern inflected, angst-ridden The Visitor.
The ensemble sound can be thick and galvanizing, as in The Work Song,
whose cinematic, documentary quality is enhanced by an intricate counterpoint
of string instruments, and can attain the majestic vigor of the
Walkabouts in hymn-like compositions such as
How To Get To Heaven and Right On Time.
The group is capable of both a touching simplicity (Archy's Lullaby)
rousing garage rave-ups (Go Jimmy Go) and
psychedelic swoons (Sticky).
Sixteen musicians participate in the recording, including
second vocalist Edith Frost,
two guitarists, a mandolin player, a viola player,
members of Come, Silos and
The Green, Green Grass Of Slovenia (Glitterhouse, 2000) is another
Everything's Fine (Slow River, 2000) is slightly predictable, but, at
least, rescues the band from the devastatingly melancholy of the previous
album. The range of moods is perhaps broader, reaching the
existential depths of Closing Time, a "slo-core" number worthy of
Codeine's repertory, as well as the rocking Beautiful Song, propelled by
Twanging/reverbed guitar and loud drumming.
Occupying an ideal center are the calm, quasi-classical meditations
majestic, waltzing Notes From The Waiting Room (with cello, piano and harmonica)
and Drunkard's Prayer (with strings and harpsichord).
A little bit to the left of the spectrum, the duo can sound as impulsive as
the young Warren Zevon and deliver the powerful punch of
Christmas In Nevada (gospel organ, cajun accordion, blues harmonica)
and the singalong hymn Ballad Of John Parker.
While certainly not revolutionary, these songs
are occasionally breathtaking in their quiet intensity.
There is an increased reliance on the piano, particularly in the
piano-driven lullaby Kite Flying and the
closing elegy of Massachusetts.
The voice is more emphatic, leveraging the instrumental drama and
relinquishing some of the subtletly in favor of a more direct approach.
Musically, Robert Fisher and Paul Austin have become masterful arrangers,
and can take advantage of friends such as
Six Finger Satellite's James Apt,
Codeine's Chris Brokaw,
the Walkabouts' Terri Moeller and Carla Torgerson
and Edith Frost.
The sessions of In The Fishtank (Konkurrent, 2001)
that had for protagonists Willard Grant Conspiracy and Telefunk
are devoted to six traditionals.
Robert Fisher surrounded himself with a crowd of respectable musicians on
Regard the End (Kimchee, 2004),
and the selection is consistently
pleasant, but hardly revolutionary. Easiest to digest is the
country-pop of Soft Hand, and most cushy is the gently arranged
Ghost of the Girl in the Well,
but the core of Fisher's vision lies in the heartfelt laments of
Beyond the Shore,
Trials of Harrison Hayes ,
There But For The Grace Of God (Glitterhouse, 2005) is a career
Let It Roll (2006) is generally more varied and gloomier (the eight-minute
Let It Roll).
Fisher moved in the desert of California in 2006.
Pilgrim Road (Loose, 2008) is mostly a collection of
spectral, philosophical, piano-based, gospel-ish Nick Cave-esque litanies (best Miracle on 8th Street), but it also
includes the half-spoken Painter Blue, which sounds like a neoclassical version of Leonard Cohen
and the country duet The Great Deceiver
with Natalie Merchant.
They re-recorded songs from the previous albums on
Paper Covers Stone (Loose, 2009).
Ghost Republic (Loose, 2013), performed by the duo of
Robert Fisher and viola player David Michael Curry,
was the outcome of a collaboration with a poet and a film-maker who also
delivered a book and a film, all of them centered around the ghost town of
Bodie in California. It is Fisher's most minimalistic album.
Meanwhile, Curry in Boston was also leading an ambient project called
Empty House Cooperative that occasionally included
cellist Jonah Sacks,
Chris Brokaw of Codeine and
Thalia Zedek of Come.
Their only official albums were Painted Plane (2004),
Seven (2016) and
Hudson River Trilogy 1 (2017).
Fisher died in 2017 of cancer at the age of 59.
Untethered (Loose, 2018) was assembled by Curry after his death
and contains seven songs originally on the EP Dwelltime (2013).
The albums opens with the
Captain Beefheart-ian blues of
and closes with the six-minute instrumental Trailís End, dominated by
the distorted guitar of
Codeineís Chris Brokaw.