There are not many albums that I listen to and know that when I listen to it in future I’m not going to skip a song. Radiohead’s ‘The Bends’ springs to mind as one of these albums. I distinctly remember lying down on my bed as a teenager and shutting my eyes and just listening and absorbing the whole album from start to finish. ‘OK Computer’ as well. Couple of Wilco album’s perhaps. Neil Young’s ‘After the Goldrush’. So they do exist. I’m sure there are more, but I don’t want to bore you with lists. I have to say though, it’s not happened much of late. I really can’t think of an album by anyone in the last few years where there’s not at least 1 track I didn’t really like or wanted to skip past. Even my favourite albums of late have moments that I don’t really care for. I think it’s inevitable. Not many people produce a perfect album. They can’t always please you with everything they do. Of course, it’s possible, it just doesn’t happen all that often. Well I’m delighted to say that it’s happened to me for the first time in ages and it’s put a massive smile on my face. It also slightly amazes me that the artist in question is Withered Hand. And given how controversial that statement might sound to some I think that I should probably explain.
Let’s start at the beginning. The very first time I saw Withered Hand was when he supported Woodpigeon and eagleowl upstairs at the Forest Café. I can’t remember how long ago that was but it was a good while – perhaps 3 or 4 years ago. My honest first impression was somebody with a poor voice, lack of any stage presence and songs I just didn’t engage with. I really remember being unimpressed. It was only because of eagleowl’s Bart constantly telling me I was wrong and Withered Hand was brilliant that I decided to give him another go. And I’m glad I did because every single time I’ve seen him since I have been amazed by how he just gets better and better and better. This progression culminated in 2 of the best live performances that I saw last year by any artist – at Gimme Shelter in November and then at Trampoline in December. The Gimme Shelter performance in particular sticks in my mind because the 4 songs he played were within a ridiculously tight timescale. The tension that had been building backstage as to whether he’d get to play at all was released full throttle into one of the most intense and brilliant live performances of the year without a doubt. You could not ask for more. And I hold my hands up. I was wrong. Very, very wrong. Not only does Dan have one of the most unique voices I’ve heard, he uses it brilliantly both when singing and when chatting between songs (brilliant stage presence too). When I first heard the track ‘No Cigarettes’ it was the vocal delivery that completely floored me. The emotion conveyed captured the mood and song perfectly and therein lies the skill of the man. To tell his stories and make you believe in his every word. To be caught up in the humour, the sadness, the irony of these tales. He is without doubt a story teller whether the tales are fact or fiction. As a songwriter and musician he truly is remarkable and this is a remarkable album.
It’d be easy to criticise the album by saying that 4 of the tracks appear on his 2 previously released EPs and 2 of the tracks are covers, but this would be stupid in my opinion. Each of the previously released tracks have been re-recorded, with Religious Songs taking on a more relaxed pace and all sorts of extra instrumentation added to the tunes. But it’s here that I have my one and only slight criticism. ‘No Cigarettes’ first grabbed me as a track with Dan and his guitar. I don’t think it needed anything else. It was the delivery and beauty of this tune itself that made it one of my favourite songs ever written. And I genuinely mean that. It’s stunning beauty and fragility left me amazed the first time I heard it. The added instrumentation for me (I’m thinking banjo in particular) clouds some of what I loved about the original, but the song itself is SO good that I’m going to live with it. So whilst it might be a criticism, this tune is still the stand out track of the album for me. (Well, along with ‘Love In The Time Of Ecstasy’) Not sure if it’s really a criticism then is it? Oh well, hopefully there’s a point in there somewhere.
Ultimately, Dan Wilson has created an album that I can guarantee you now will be in my top 10 of 2009. From start to finish it’s brilliant. I don’t want to skip tracks. I don’t want to put on something else. And if I’m honest, I don’t want it to end. But that’s ok. I can just hit repeat and listen to it all day long. And I think I will. It’s amazing to think this guy has gone from somebody I dismissed to possibly my favourite Edinburgh artist. Buy this album. It’s brilliant.
TSP Grade = A