Originally released in Europe last May, Regard The End
appeared in the midst of a sea change for this folk/roots collective. Leader and longtime Massachusetts resident Robert Fisher relocated to the outskirts of Los Angeles, while co-founder Paul Austin left the band as a full-time member, only contributing acoustic guitar and bass to two tracks. However, musical curveballs are kept to a minimum here. Aficionados of WGC's autumnal, melancholy sound will find this fifth full-length release comparable to the group's previous four, only more refined and maybe a little more assured.
As the title indicates, these songs generally revolve around mortality and loss -- blatantly so on tracks like "Fare Thee Well" and "The Suffering Song", but not as explicitly on "Twistification" (which appeared in a different version on WGC's In The Fishtank collaboration with Telefunk), where "the pretty little miss" Fisher spies near a muddy swamp may or may not be an apparition. Traditional poems set to new music sit side by side with Fisher originals, and to his credit, if you're not familiar with the former you'll need to reference the credits to identify them. Notice how the original "Twistification" concludes with the couplet "Turn around she's there / Now she's gone"; it's then immediately followed by the traditional "Another Man Is Gone". Fisher repeats that title over a bluesy vamp with such escalating spiritual urgency and rebellious fury that you'd think he was attempting a tribute to Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around".
This fixation on death, in tandem with arrangements featuring strings, trumpets, grand pianos and a few idiosyncratic touches (a mandolin here, a quivering saw there) suggest that WGC have made their own Automatic For The People. It's not as direct, challenging, or staggeringly unique as that masterwork, but consistently delightful all the same. Jess Klein's tender countervocal boosts the four songs in which she appears, and Kristin Hersh was born to duet with Fisher on "The Ghost Of The Girl In The Well", which benefits from her suitably ethereal, elongated moans. Also effective are the minor key triplets that drive the warm, devotional "Fare Thee Well". "The Suffering Song" concludes the album with an epic-length but intimately rendered account of a death in a family, made universal by its mournful chorus: "Suffering's gonna come / It's as old as the world."
If this all sounds relentlessly depressing, or if Fisher's smoky, Nick Cave-does-Americana baritone just doesn't do it for you, he offers some reprieve midway through the album on "Soft Hand". Its bright, cheery, crisply produced aura (complete with drum loops) and radio-friendly simplicity is at odds with the rest of Regard The End; it might have even worked as a stand alone single. But its ringing hooks, backing woo-hoos and disarming chorus ("There I made you smile again") hint that Fisher is as much of a natural as, say, Steve Wynn in crafting the occasional sparking, uncomplicated pop song. I'm glad it's included here. Now that Fisher has nearly perfected his usual bittersweet gloom and reflection, maybe he'll regard "Soft Hand" as inspiration for his next endeavor.