Career-spanning survey of Americana masters, including demos and rarities

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Primal Scheme

Not the definitive ‘greatest hits’ that will one day reveal the Willards as maybe the most underrated American rock band, but still a fine introduction to Robert Fisher and co.

Formed as a loose collective around Fisher and co-writer Paul Austin in Boston in 1996, early tracks like “Bring It Down” show an experimental urge they’d soon abandon. But Fisher’s confessional lyrics ?his early life was bruised by alcoholism, drugs and self-loathing?were in place from day one.

“Bring The Monster Inside” (in demo form here) was a violent catalyst for his pain. But, in general, they essay a relieved despair, a stately acceptance, describing characters ceasing to struggle as emotional quicksand pulls them under, trapped by loneliness, drink or death. Mostly acoustic instruments cohere into majestic folk-noir narratives, made convincing by Fisher’s poetically precise sense of place. “Rainbirds”‘ midday drinkers skulking deep in a Californian bar’s shadows, dreading the sun, is one extreme. “I Miss You Best” is another, snow drifting through a window as a sleepless, abandoned Fisher still feels “the shape of your body like a bruise against my side”.

These snapshots of Americans stripped to their souls, cut adrift from the gaudy media surface, are allied to strong, swelling tunes and Fisher’s rich croon. They are unknown anthems, an alt.country answer to Sinatra’s “Only The Lonely”. The injustice of the Willards’ burial in the underground is then proven by a sequence of powerful rock songs, like “Love Doesn’t”‘s superior AOR and the glam-cosmic tumult of “Sticky”. If there’s a criticism of the band, it’s their increasing reluctance to let this side loose, a devotion to more meditative moods which can leave them one-paced. But this record’s dark lullabies, unanswered prayers, drinking songs and small-hours laments still sound like a lasting legacy.