Pop: Songs of suffocation and hard-won hope

Live; WILLARD GRANT CONSPIRACY UNDERWORLD LONDON
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The Independent Culture
IT'S AN embarrassment of riches, a shotgun marriage of two underselling headliners that works an instant alchemy. On a bill that began at an ungodly 6.30 with the excellent, sly English singer-songwriter Peter Bruntnell, Willard Grant Conspiracy - from Boston by way of Californian desert small- towns - and Hazeldine - Albuquerque, New Mexico out of North Carolina - are both buzzing hybrids, Western bands that break the bonds of the "alt.country" straitjackets some have forced on their music. Both defeat all expectations tonight, in the process turning this storm-hit corner of Camden into an American dream.

Willard Grant Conspiracy's Robert Fisher sets the scene. Their second song, the new "Massachusetts", is typical. "They say that time will be your friend, that it gets better, gets better in the end," Robert Fisher sighs in his deep, rich voice, but he knows it won't. For in Willard Grant world, the snow is always packed against the door, the smallest moments inside pregnant with restricted meaning, useless turns, walking on the spot.

"Massachusetts" is one more of their anthems for a snow-blind, single- person state.

The night takes flight when this usually acoustic band, electric now, yank "Let the Monster Inside" inside-out. The roar of the song's faltering, late-night drunk achieves musical expression as feedback leaps unbidden from shrieking guitars, everything struck with smashing, yet calm and centred force, Fisher's grand, capably rough rock voice rolling over all: "This is a fiction of comfort. This is a means to an end." It's an unjudgemental, graveyard elegy to alcoholic extinction, a redemption song in every way.

It's followed by "The Work Song", another sad observation of small-town suffocation. But the true purpose of such apparent depressive content is now clear. This song, too, may start static, closed, about people whose only dream is to sleep. But the chorus circles faster and higher, till it blasts off on the spot. This band may sometimes sound like they've just swallowed the last pill in the bottle. But, really, they're about hard- won hope.

"We've been in Albuquerque writing sad songs for eight months," Hazeldine offers by way of introduction. Maybe so, but they're letting their hair down tonight. These, too, are songs of people sickening for love, leaving, clinging, or caught between, crashed out or smacked up in front of TVs, driving away from Western towns that refuse to recede.

But they're played with pure joy, the newness of many of them encouraging recklessness. The main songwriter, Tonya Lamm bobs like Moptop Paul McCartney, perhaps the point where her country roots were twisted, and her clear, ringing voice roughly harmonises with harsher lead singer, Shawn Barton, as cymbals crash and guitars interlock into straight roadhouse country rock, songs rolling and smashing to an end.

There's no room for truly hard, bone-close songs like "Daddy"; little reason to linger on brutal lines that do slip through. "The bottom line of a Monday night is blue as a tomb," they decide at one point.

If that's true, these uplifting Western sounds were a resurrection.

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