(SXSW 2014 flavoured!) Album Review: Withered Hand – New Gods

By on Wednesday, 19th February 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

Withered Hand New Gods coverWithered Hand is the stage name of Scottish folk singer/songwriter Dan Willson, whose second full length album, ‘New Gods’, is due for release in mid-March (the 10th of March, just in time for SXSW!) by Fortuna Pop! Records. According to the label’s press release for ‘New Gods’, Willson took up songwriting around age 30 when a series of life events sparked “a period of reflection” that led to the creation of his deeply introspective first album ‘Good News’. ‘New Gods’ is a variation on that theme of self-examination, equally perceptive and evocative, but with a mellow touch of wry humor to soften its blunt honesty.

Musically, the songs on ‘New Gods’ are enriched and heavily influenced by the variety of musicians collaborating with Willson on its production. A grant from Scottish arts council Creative Scotland allowed Willson to record in a proper studio for the first time, working with producer Tony Doogan as well as Stevie Jackson and Chris Geddes of Belle and Sebastian, King Creosote, Eugene Kelly of The Vaselines, and Frightened Rabbit frontman Scott Hutchison.

From the very outset, the focus of ‘New Gods’ is strongly set on Willson’s lyrics. The songs are deceptively mellow and laid-back in spite of their heavy thematic material. Opening track ‘Horseshoe’ (stream it below) contains the heartrending plea, “please don’t put a shadow on her lung, so young” in its exploration of mortality and loss. First single ‘Black Tambourine’ is probably the most upbeat track on the album, with jangling guitars, warm backing vocals, and lyrics that almost lean toward optimism, including the infectious chorus of “you light me up with your smile”.

In keeping with the easygoing American West Coast sound, the next three tracks on ‘New Gods’ are actually set in California. The setting seems remarkably appropriate for songs dealing with the surreal, out-of-place feeling that traveling musicians have often remarked upon. The lyrics of ‘Love Over Desire’ are more bluntly prosaic than fluidly poetic in their talk about travel between Las Vegas and Los Angeles: “though I try and I try, it’s not real to me / this life is not what you thought it would be / I put my hand in my pocket and forgot about the travel pussy / another flower in the coffin of monogamy”. ‘King of Hollywood’ has a bluesy, almost country Americana feel, especially during the guitar riff in the bridge, and its cheeky lyrics, such as, “you say I remind you of your ex-wife like you were picking the scar”, are almost uncomfortably comical in that musical setting. The backing vocals and echoing guitars in the chorus of ‘California’ have an eerie, disorienting musical effect, and its lyrics immediately call to mind the alternate reality of The Eagles’ ‘Hotel California’.

The second half of ‘New Gods’ is less specific in its setting and in its musical focus. ‘Fall Apart’ is lyrically simple but catchy, especially in the repeated layers overlapping phrases at the end. The title track ‘New Gods’ resorts to a “doo-doo-doo” refrain, calling into question the line, “we can do it okay or we can do it right”, though the lyrics in the verses are somewhat stronger. ‘Between True Love and Ruin’ has a promising opening verse, “as the last rays of summer split the windshield in two / and we went for a drive, you and I, just for something to do / I was thinking of sex and you were dreaming of freedom”, but it falls into a clumsily predictable rhyme scheme that is eventually saved by the broadly uplifting brass in the background.

On ‘New Gods’, Withered Hand explores new sonic territory, finding a warmer, mellower sound to temper his often bitter lyrics. Fans of Dan Willson’s previous work will find the same uncompromising candor here, but in a slightly slightly sweeter, easier to swallow flavor than before. The release of ‘New Gods’ will immediately precede Withered Hand’s showcase performances at SXSW 2014, where the new material is sure to find an appreciative audience.

7/10

Withered Hand’s current single ‘Horseshoe’ is available now on Fortuna Pop! Records. Full album ‘New Gods’ will be out on 10th of March.

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[…] To read Carrie’s review of Withered Hand’s upcoming album ‘New Gods’, go here. […]

[…] In one of the few quiet interviews I had in Austin, I asked Willson about his latest album, ‘New Gods’, and found him to be very forthcoming about his songwriting and recording process, his stage […]

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