A huge number of people I know in Edinburgh engaged in making what I guess you’d loosely call alt-folk seem to be refugees from a metal past. I don’t get it. How in the hell do you go from listening to death metal to wanting to make music that sounds like this?
I remember Religious Songs being one of the first songs I ever played on Fresh Air Radio. It was early enough that my Mum was still listening to the shows (that lasted about two weeks) and she specifically emailed in to say how much she loved the song and all I can remember thinking is ‘you weren’t really listening to the words, were you Mum.’
Oddly enough, that minute little exchange seems to encapsulate Withered Hand, for me, and I’m not sure why. I think it’s just because Dan Willson, despite being one of the most straightforward people you could ever meet, might just be incredibly enigmatic.
Musically, this record is utterly simple. There’s nothing ground-breaking being done with songwriting, arrangement or structure here, it is just eleven songs of plain vanilla songwriting. But then, the band is a stable four-piece of acoustic (mostly) guitar, banjo, cello and drums which is not as straightforward as all that.
Lyrically, it’s hard to say why Good News is not a depressing album. The lyrics encompass existentialist bleakness, troubled relationships with religion and what can at the very kindest be described as self-esteem issues. But it never comes across as pompous, self-indulgent or miserable and I haven’t really been able to figure out why. Sure, there is also a lot of warmth and wit to be found, and these act as a brilliant antidote, but that doesn’t seem to answer the whole question, I don’t think.
Dan can’t really sing, either. His voice quavers and breaks… and is somehow gorgeous to listen to. He has none of the attributes you would think of in a front-man, but that just doesn’t matter. This band is his band in every sense, and there is something about it which therefore makes him the perfect front man.
The group themselves look like someone plucked them from the rejects bin in a toy shop: drummer Alan with his skinny waistcoat, wobbling quiff and languid manner; Hannah on cello with her bizarre and yet strangely perfect sartorial choices, and her wee coloured stickers up the neck of her instrument which I think she put there to help her learn the notes to the songs; baldy banjo muppet Neil in his pointy indie-slippers; and then Willson himself: straggly hair, surprised smile and a guitar decorated like Jennifer Aniston’s waistcoat in Office Space. They’re weird. And it works.
And I think I know why it works: everything about this project, this band, has perfect integrity. This album has not one single contrived thing about it, and it shows through clear as day. Everything here is that way because Willson and his band are just like that. So to come back, somewhat cheesily, to the title of one of the songs on Dan’s previous EP: R U Courageous. And I think it’s fair to say that this record shows unequivocally that he is. It’s all just out there for us to enjoy, or not, judge or not, ignore or not, not dressed up in artifice, not smothered in oblique lyrics, and not forced on us as if the writer thought it was crucial that we hear it.
It just comes across as Willson saying ‘Hello, this is me, here I am.’ with no urgent compulsion that we pay attention, but with the unassuming courage not to hide anything to make himself look better or more interesting, and as such has made one of the most uplifting, personal, compelling records I’ve heard in years. In a somewhat contradictory sense, Good News just makes me smile, all the way through, even the sad songs.
Listen to mp3s
Buy album from SL Records