Withered Hand is Dan Willson, an Edinburgh-based anti-folk musician and visual artist. All this year I had brief encounters with some of Withered Hand’s music (a compilation including the track ‘Providence’, Woodpigeon covering ‘No Cigarettes’ at End Of The Road festival) but it took this Christmas to finally unite me with debut album “Good News”, 14 months after it was first released on SL Records.
“Good News” is made up of ten poignant and pained confessionals all delivered through Willson’s plaintive little-boy-lost vocals. However there are very adult themes and emotions on display here: conflicted feelings about religion and sex and a constant sense of failure run through the entire record. When Willson sings "So I broke another of the Ten Commandments" as the opening line of ‘Cornflake’ it is more with a heavy sense of disappointment and rejection rather than rebellion. In ‘Religious Songs’ some choir-boy naivety creeps in - "I don’t really know what the wine was for / Cos if it was Jesus blood wouldn’t there be more?" - but this is a rare example. For mostly, this choir boy has seen and experienced too much of the blemished lives and flawed intentions of the grown-up world. How many other ‘choir boys’ would then go on to sing in the same ‘religious’ song "I beat myself off when I sleep on your futon / I walk in the rain with my second hand suit on"?
Willson performs as part of a four-piece band: cello by Hannah Shepherd; banjo, ukulele, harmonium by Neil Pennycook; drums by Alun Thomas; and on this album backing vocals from Jo Foster and Bart Eagleowl (a line-up which is a mini-Rock Family Tree of several branches of the Edinburgh music scene). The delicate orchestration they bring to these quiet anthems is lovingly played - and the whole beautifully mixed by Kramer of Galaxie 500 and Low fame, a master of making quiet music sound immediate and full of contained energy. It is as ravishing to listen to as it is heart-wrenching to follow the heart-on-sleeve lyrics.
For all the sense of sitting on fences, failing and fucking up, there is also an undercurrent of elation. It might not be as explicit as hope but there are expressions of love mixed in with darker sentiments in ‘Providence’, ‘New Dawn’ and ‘I Am Nothing’. And there is a clarion call of community and celebration in the final song ‘For The Maudlin’: “This song is for the strugglers, for the cynics and the maudlin / This song is for the poor boy, I won’t be there in the morning”. As with the rest of the album, nothing is ever black or white; Willson manages to undercut this rallying cry in the final line “I won’t be there in the morning / No, I’ll be asleep on the overnight bus”.
Each year I spend an inordinate amount of time working out my top albums of the year. This month might have been all about everyone’s 2010 lists but upon hearing “Good News” I need to go back and revise my 2009 Top Ten.
At the end of January, Withered Hand is touring Scotland and North East England supporting Woodpigeon, visiting Aberdeen, Aviemore, Stornoway, Inverness, Glasgow, Durham, Middlesbrough, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Stirling. Sounds like an unmissable double-bill. “Good News” indeed.