Willard Grant Conspiracy

Regard The End

Release Date: 05/05/2003 · Format: CD · Catalog-No: GR 578

"With the unanimous, critic-drooling clamour afforded 2000's Everything's Fine, WGC seemed to have hoisted themselves onto a rarified plateau from which the only way was down. After the quasi-psychedelia of debut 3 AM Sunday @ Fortune Otto's (1996), the fluid membership collective built around founder members Robert Fisher (vocals) and Paul Austin (guitar) had begun carving a rep as peddlers of doom-laden, redemptive balm for the lost and damaged with 1998's Flying Low and the following year's Mojave. Central to WGC's black pit of campfire-folk sorrow was the exorcising of demons: particularly the self-loathing and emotional dislocation that had driven Fisher to pills and booze from an appallingly tender age. By (the only semi-ironically titled) Everything's Fine, the singer appeared to have reached a place where the abandoned, but ever-tugging, allure of the sauce had been drowned in music's cathartic, healing waters. That record - Lambchop-paralleled in these pages as WGC's Nixon - seemed unassailable. Until now, that is.

The most immediate thing about Regard The End is the sheer, bloodied power of Fisher's voice. Like a colossal centrifugal force, everything else spins around it. In its untethered shift stage centre, it both defines an entire mood and ushers in depths of feeling rendering much of their back catalogue almost anaemic in comparison. On Flying Low, for instance, he was forever vying for space with tough acoustic guitars, drums and studio trickery, so that for every unadorned "Evening Mass" there was the distorted vocal mix of "August List". Even Everything's Fine now appears like Fisher was holding back, its more conventional band format denying the space around the vocal which sharpens Regard The End in such dramatic relief. Compared to Fisher's deep-swamp baritone here, only the former's "Wicked" and "Ballad Of John Parker" tap the same wellspring.

The second point of major departure is Fisher's delving into traditional folk forms, informed as much by Celtic/European folk as the turn-of-the-century rusticity of Greil Marcus's "old, weird America". Partly recorded in Slovenia (where Fisher hooked up with long-term ally and, tellingly perhaps, Europe-championing musical flame-keeper, The Walkabouts' Chris Eckman), Boston and London, Regard The End stitches four traditional songs into seven originals without exposing the seams. This time around, Paul Austin opts for the 'occassional member' card, making way for multi-instrumentalist Simon Alpin (most recently seen pumping keyboards on the Teenage Fanclub tour), who co-produces. With Fisher leading from the front - amongst his peers, only The Hansdome Family's Brett Sparks shares the same page - various guests' contributions, bleeding in and around the narrative, are never less than consummate. Take Dennis Cronin, for example, likened by Fisher to Chet Baker, adding beautiful trumpet blush to "Fare Thee Well", or the doleful Celtic fiddle that both saddens and stirs "The Trials Of Harrison Hayes" and "Rosalee", or Alpin's gorgeous mandolin intro to "Beyond The Shore".

Lyrically, as evinced by the title, death is never far, though this never sounds like a maudlin record. Trad. opener "River In The Pines" turns the tragic demise of two young lovers into an affirmation of unbreakable devotion, whilst "Beyond The Shore" finds Fisher tenderly intoning over softly ebbing strings "I've struggled long with Shame's great load/And shouldered my share of pain/To feel the caress of the long black veil/I've worked, but not in vain". On one level, it's about fleeing the mortal realm, on another it's a hymn to the transfiguring cycle of the human spirit ("I'm bound to go beyond this shore/In Glory I will be placed"). Elsewhere, as on the spare "Ghost Of The Girl In The Well", allowed to breathe over creaky guitar and saw, he's joined by Kristin Hersh to recount the tale of a 14-year-old falling to her death whilst escaping the clutches of an evil landowner. Pure, classic Southern Gothic.

Ultimately, Regard The End is a quest for truth, an attempt to uncover life's harshest lessons however tough, however unpalatable. Often armed only with personal faith as the difference between salvation and the abyss. The stunning "The Trials Of Harrison Hayes", in dissecting human failings, admits: "Misery doesn't come from the earth/Trouble doesn't sprout from the ground/People are born to trouble/Just as sparks fly upwards into the clouds", whilst break-up ballad "Fare Thee Well" (brightened by WGC touring partner Jess Klein's warm, breathy warble) intones "Faith can heal a lot of wounds/Here at night in this rented room/I look to the ceiling and find a reason/To carry on".

Of the traditionals, "Twistifaction" (a simpler, denuded version to the one released on WGC's 2001 collaborative album with Dutch band Telefunk, In The Fishtank) employs softly-caressing violins and the hypnotic pipe of a lonely melodica to enact the tale of a mysterious siren skulking in the deep and muddy waters of a maple swamp. "Day Is Past And Gone" finds Fisher at his most soothing, evoking all the weary contentment of a tired, fulfilled life drawing down the shade in fading light. Conversely, "Another Man Is Gone" updates the old slave song, "Another Man Done Gone" (as covered by Odetta and others), into a rumble of whining slide guitar, shivering strings and dobs of piano.

Smouldering for the most part like crackling firewood, Fisher's voice suddenly erupts at 2:22, bellowing one huge, suspended note that slowly dissolves into soft, lonely piano notes to the song's end. It's a nape-tingling, sublime moment, leaving a charged silence that still knocks me backwards after living with this record for weeks. Of Fisher's originals, closer "The Suffering Song" may come cloaked in apocalyptic doom, but is the most magnificent endpiece imaginable, Fisher coming over like some great gospel hybrid of Paul Robeson's earth-shaking tenor and Johnny Cash's brimstone holler.

All done, Regard The End is the first Willard Grant album to truly immerse yourself in. In ditching most of their traditional band ethic, they've tapped into the finest folk gothic traditions of death, suffering, misery and hardship and fashioned a paradoxically uplifting, transformative record of extraordinary power. If this is the end of the world as we know it, I feel just fine." (Uncut)

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1. River In The Pines
2. The Trials Of Harrison Hayes
3. Beyond The Shore
4. The Ghost Of The Girl In The Well
5. Twistification
6. Another Man Is Gone
7. Soft Hand
8. Rosalee
9. Fare Thee Well
10. Day Is Passed And Gone
11. The Suffering Song