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Willard Grant Conspiracy



Their name sounds like something out of an alternate history of America, and that's probably just about right for this amorphous Massachusetts collective specializing in stark, moody, folk-inflected gothic rock. As the story goes, in the mid-'90s, the group's founding members, singer/songwriter and nominal maestro Robert Fisher and guitarist Paul Austin, were asked to try out a friend's new recording studio, so they recruited another musician, guitarist Sean O'Brien, to do so -- and the Willard Grant Conspiracy was born. In the years since, WGC has become a constantly evolving entity whose lineup is rarely the same two nights in a row, though the two founding members remain. Members of Codeine, Sugar, and The Silos, as well as itinerant indie folksinger Edith Frost, are among the many who have joined the Conspiracy.

Mark Eitzel's fine, now defunct American Music Club probably serves as the best reference point for this band's style, because of the way both groups sew together disparate swaths of the American musical fabric -- from country to folk to singer-songwriter pop to blues -- into a unified, pensive, profoundly introspective sound. That said, the Willard Grant Conspiracy definitely has its own style, a baroque kind of dusty country-pop that makes you think of cold empty places in the middle of nowhere. For all its members, the group's sound is remarkably desolate and spare; each new instrument that slowly threads its way into the mix seems to enhance that feeling. The band's basic setup features guitars, mandolin, and percussion, though the percussion is not requisite. Many of the songs feature some piano, like a bright kite flying on a cold day. Various stringed instruments enter the fray, each with its own special kind of sadness -- dobro and banjo with their melancholy cheer, lap steel and slide guitar with their mournful elasticity, viola and cello with their ornate velveteen weariness. Fisher's voice is just right, deep with a hint of gravel, capable of both bluesy drawl and delicate folk lament, and Frost regularly provides haunting backup that raises the hair on your neck.

The band's first record, released back in 1996, was 3 AM Sunday at Fortune Otto's. That was the product of the home recording studio test drive and featured only the group's initial three members. A series of informal jam sessions helped determine the band's collective, ever-evolving approach, and yielded the second Willard Grant Conspiracy album, Flying Low (1998), on Ryko/Slow River. Two more full-length records have since followed, 1999's Mojave, and 2000's Everything's Fine. That last record produced the featured "Beautiful Song," a brief, bittersweet piece of rootsy yearning.