Scottish Singer-Songwriter Finds His Groove
Withered Hand is the moniker of Edinburgh-based singer-songwriter Dan Wilson, whose debut release Good News was accompanied by a trio of EPs. New full-length New Gods is a collaboration with producer Tony Doogan, whose previous credits include albums with Belle & Sebastian, Mountain Goats and Teenage Fanclub. Withered Hand is straightforward folk rock with a jaunty, jangly edge, good enough at what it does, but not quite varied enough in approach to remain engaging after repeated listenings—although this isn’t evident at first.
A song like “Black Tambourine” contains enough Byrds-ish jangle to feel like a summertime hit, but Wilson is quick to change things up in the very next song: “Don’t give me that crap about doing what you have to do” he admonishes in “Love Over Desire”, a moody, downtempo number. Both these tunes follow the bracing opener “Horseshoe”, which sets the tone with its mix of strummed acoustic guitar, muscular drums and keyboards, and something that sounds very like an accordion wheezing away in the background.
If this sounds like Wilson and the band—a fine group of musicians that includes Alun Thomas, Malcolm Benzie, Pam Berry, Fraser Hughes and Peter Liddle—are trying hard to avoid falling into musical ruts, well so they are, at least at first. There are some energetic tunes here, like the pulsing “Heart Heart” and the Cracker-like “King of Hollywood”, with its stomping tempo and wry lyrics: “You said I remind you of your ex-wife like you were picking at the scar.”
Elsewhere, though, the tempos tend to slow and the lyrical concerns turn inward. Much of the album’s back half falls into this category of languid introspection, with “California”, “Between Life and Ruin” and “Life of Doubt” all utilizing slow tempos, primarily acoustic instruments and Wilson’s fragile, tentative voice. Neil Young he ain’t, but Wilson’s vocals do possess a certain echoey wistfulness, not to mention whininess. He’s not about to belt out anything, but gets the most of his delivery. The harmonica on “Life of Doubt” is strongly evocative of Uncle Neil, too.
By the time the listener gets to title track “New Gods”—at 5:40 the longest tune here—a certain monotony has set in. The song fails to set itself apart from the balance of the album, in part because we’re nearing the end of it, and having just heard those quieter songs mentioned above, the sonics start running together. More successful is album closer “Not Alone”, which starts again as an acoustic strummer but builds gradually, thanks to a warm chorus of horns and some deftly-placed guitar, until its final minute-plus washes in waves of crescendo that carry the listener through to the end of the song, and the album.
As singer-songwriters go, Wilson has talent and his band serves him well. There is a certain degree of sameness to the record that undermines the band’s strengths somewhat, but there are plenty of good moments too.