Penny Black Music

When a band starts reworking old material on album, it usually reveals a waning in creativity. The Willard Grant Conspiracy has, however, always been an unusual act. ‘Paper Covers Stone’, their eighth studio album, which is predominantly a collection of old songs in new arrangements, far from having a sparseness of fresh ideas, in contrast shows a whole abundance of them.

Based around baritone-voiced singer and only permanent member Robert Fisher, the Willard Grant Conspiracy has constantly reinvented itself during their nearly fifteen years of recording. The role-call of the rest of the group has stretched to dozens of members across America and Europe, depending on who is available for each recording. Stage shows have had similarly constantly evolving line-ups, featuring anything from one to fourteen participants.

A teasing statement -“If someone tells you played on this, they probably did”- that appeared usually instead of credit listings on the band’s first three albums, ‘3 am at Sunday @ Fortune Otto’s’ (1996), ‘Flying Low’ (1998) and ‘Mojave’ (1999,) still a decade on contains a lot of truth to it. Against such a backdrop, it is perhaps surprising that Robert Fisher has chosen to wait until now to do this album, rather than making it years ago.

For ’Paper Covers Stone’, which was recorded in a mammoth two day recording session in Vermont, Fisher has assembled some of his first collaborators in the band. Sean O’Brien was the original guitarist in the Willard Grant Conspiracy, but has not appeared on a record since ‘Mojave’. Pete Weiss, who produced this album, also produced each record up to and including the band’s fourth album, ‘Everything’s Fine’ (2000). Viola and saw player David Michael Curry is after Fisher the Willard Grant Conspiracy’s most constant member, playing on every album since ‘Flying Low’. As Curry has remained in Boston where the group was formed while Fisher returned a few years ago to his native California, his appearances have, however, become increasingly fleeting. Only former Dream Syndicate front man and guitarist Steve Wynn, who has toured on and off with the project since 2002, is a more recent addition to the band.

What is immediately striking about ‘Paper Covers Stone’, given its personnel, is that rather than focus on the group’s early songs, Fisher and his cohorts have gravitated towards its latter recordings. There are no songs from ‘3 am’ and ‘Mojave’ and only one from ‘Flying Low’. There are instead three songs from the Willard Grant Conspiracy’s fifth album, ‘Regard the End’(2003), four from its sixth album, ‘Let It Roll’ (2006) and two from the group’s seventh and last album, last year’s ‘Pilgrim Road’.(A forthcoming tour only EP, ‘Trunk in the Attack’, which was also recorded at the same time, features three songs from ‘Everything’s Fine’ and an additional one each from ‘Regard the End’ and ‘Let It Roll’).

While in recent years the Willard Grant Conspiracy’s sound on record has been epic, whether on the sublime traditional folk of ‘Regard the End’, the storming psychedelia and punk rock of ‘Let It Roll’ or the orchestral ‘Pilgrim Road’, ‘Paper Covers Stone’ is much starker. Recorded in a changing format of solo, duo, trio and quartet arrangements, Robert Fisher has said about ‘Paper Covers Stone’ that it has a “living room” feel and much of it has an earthy blues/folk sound. On it whole songs change tone and also sometimes meaning.

Opener ‘Soft Hand’ was a breezy pop anthem in its original version on ‘Regard the End’, but the version on ‘Paper Covers Stone’, with a mournful brass and Curry’s winding viola steadily taking dominance,is much more forlorn and sad. When Fisher sings wistfully about his love interest, “There I made you smile/Made you smile again”, it is as if the affair is over, a tarnished memory rather than as on the first recording one which was still in bloom.

‘No Such Thing as Clean’, the track from ‘Flying Low’ and a song about both drugs and a breakdown, was in its initial draft a discordant indie rock number that over the course of its eight minute running time built and built. On ‘Paper Covers Stone’, it is cut by almost a quarter and smoulders throughout, a sudden explosion into noise seemingly promised but never coming, making a dark, already tautly wound track even more tense. Fisher on the first version sounded angry and self-disgusted at his situation, but on this he comes across as simply crushed.

‘Distant Shore’ from ‘Let It Roll’ is shorn of all of its lavish instrumentation down to just a sparse acoustic guitar and Fisher’s world worn vocals. Written from the perspective of a soldier writing home to his loved ones on the eve of his certain death at a battle in the American Civil War, it loses none of its compassion or haunting power. ’Painter Blue’ was an abstract jazz number on ‘Pilgrim Road’, but, with Curry’s stunning singing saw shifted up the mix to a wailing fore rather than being a secondary instrument as on the first version, it is reconfigured as a drone piece.

This is all, of course, all highly impressive. Hard proof of a group that, far from being a spent force, is still making demands on itself and, as it has already shown time and time again in its live shows, refusing to play it safe even with its own back catalogue.

Asserting defiantly that they are, however, not in any shape simply trading on past glories with ’Paper Covers Stone’ and are very much a band of the present, Fisher and the Willard Grant Conspiracy have, however, also recorded three new songs for ‘Paper Covers Stone’.

‘Scars’, the first of these’, is a choppy folk number, featuring a fluttering acoustic guitar, Curry’s see-sawing viola and echoing harmonies from Fisher and Wynn. “Wash your scars with kerosene/Make them shine for all to see,” sings Fisher biblically in its chorus about a relationship being destroyed by ill communication and lies.

The second, ‘Preparing for the Fall’, is one of the few plugged-in tracks on this otherwise largely acoustic album, and is a slow-burning seven minute powerful mesh of discordant, psychedelic guitars and Curry’s teetering strings. Almost hallucinatory in tone, the Baptist-born Fisher imagines on it, as he sees storm clouds and heavy rain crossing the desert where he now lives, an apocalyptic encounter with the Devil.

The last new song, and the final track on the album, ‘The Ocean Doesn’t Want Me’, is at one level blackly comic, but at another similarly frightening and sinister. “The ocean doesn’t want me today, but I’ll be back tomorrow to play,” whispers Fisher as a lightly wispy guitar combines with the skittering sounds of Curry’s ghostly viola, bringing ‘Paper Covers Stone’ to an eerie, but dynamic close.

‘Paper Covers Stone’ is remarkable, an album that both reconvenes with past and also provides plenty of hope for the future. As brave and inventive as it is frequently surprising, it is a magnificent montage of reworkings of already classic material and instantly essential new songs.

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