Despite the melancholy that permeates nearly every song on the Willard Grant Conspiracy's Mojave, there's something achingly beautiful about the Boston collective's latest album. It's in the way the lush, acoustic soundscapes mingle with gliding pedal-steel guitar and well-placed dollops of fiddle, mandolin, accordion, and harmonica. It's in the way the melodies rise from the rich texture of the music, insinuating themselves into the gorgeous mélange with the delicacy of cigarette smoke curling into the air. But mostly it's in the husky, forthright vocals of Robert Fisher, who sings with the brooding, contemplative resonance of Richard Buckner or Dave Alvin, turning songs of sorrow and loss into oddly redemptive moments of release.
And Mojave is loaded with such moments -- moments when hope turns sour, when love leaves town on a one-way beneath a sky of moonlit blue, when despair lingers like a nagging cough. Those are the moments chronicled on the gorgeous, set-opening "Another Lonely Night" and on "I Miss You Best," both elegantly tormented masterpieces that sift through the emotional wreckage of shattered romance yet never become lost in self-pity or whiny angst. Like Son Volt's Jay Farrar, Fisher's tales of woe seldom follow any linear pattern; rather they establish a mood as much through what isn't said (the effectively obtuse "The Visitor") as through what is relayed through his deep croon ("Color of the Sun," a touching, almost uplifting pop nugget). The ominous riffs and rhythmic thrust that propel "How to Get to Heaven" and "Sticky" add to the darkness of Fisher's vocals, achieving an effect that is both haunting and dramatic. This is mood music that can spark sweet dreams or scare you into any number of sleepless nights.
Dour though it is, there is life woven throughout the hour it takes for Mojave to unfold. "The Work Song" may be the standout of the set. It's a simple song -- a ballad, of course, almost an updated cowboy song -- about the pleasures of love and companionship following a long day of sweat and toil. It could be about more than that, and it may well be. Yet the simplicity of Fisher's refrain "when we get home from work" provides a suitable, well-earned buffer for the beautiful losers who populate this evocative, disturbing gem.