It’s hard to explain what it was like to buy the Mekons’ Fear and Whiskey in 1985. It was impossible to know what was inside—the record was an import with no distribution even to the college radio stations. There was no SoundCloud for streaming, no Spotify to give it a quick tryout. The cover indicated bad times and evil. Yet I got up the courage to buy the vinyl at Wax’N’Facts Records in Little Five Points in Atlanta, and I remember Danny Beard checking me out at the counter, cuz the Mekons were like black metal at the time. The Mekons were so unknown and unknowable, they could be murderers or sorcerers, and probably both. How would you know? All you had was the piece of vinyl.
I played Fear and Whiskey once. The music was awful in enough ways to matter—careening and besotted. The album sounded like shit the first time through. And I can’t remember how long it took me to play Fear and Whiskey a second time. It sounded like shit many times, actually. I couldn’t figure out who was doing what. The voices came and went. There was a vague desolation saga in the background. The music was both desperate and barely competent, as if the musicians were overboard in a sea of beer, using their instruments for life preservers. Eventually we all jumped in with them, but it took some time.
All of which is a lead-in to the first time I saw the Mekons play live, in 1986. I had no idea what to expect, how many there would be, how old they were, what they looked like. I literally worried they would spit on us for being Americans. Instead they shambled onstage like they were the Faces, Tom looking dashing in an open-necked shirt and jacket, Sally twirling coyly, Jon giving everyone but mostly the audience shit constantly, regularly walking that fine line between being insulting and hilarious. A sea of beer indeed.
Withered Hand’s Good News is sacred where Fear and Whiskey is anarchic, strummed where the Mekons are struck. Yet the albums are equal in their noire mystique, and just as Fear and Whiskey aged like, well, whiskey, Good News sounds like one among a sparse handful of truly substantial albums from 2009 or 2011 or whenever.
And also like with the Mekons, I had no idea what to expect when Withered Hand showed up to play at the Bell House in Brooklyn. So how startling it was to see Dan Willson, the tussid indie-rock Lewis Grassic Gibbon, fronting such a Mekons-like ensemble, with a female singer, a retro-instrumentalist, and a measurable amount of alcohol onstage. Like Mountain Goats before him, Willson has the smarts to put together a real band to fill out his sweet, dark, profane, pontific tunes now that opportunity has presented itself. Don’t take my word for it: Odyshape’s own Nicky Heisenberg was there.
Nicky will take you on a tour of both Withered Hand albums, and praise the Lord for Good News cuz 2014’s already got a clutch of truly great albums under it’s belt. What I would add is that Willson dips into C86 like he’s got Postcard and Sarah singles to spare, and nobody’s grown whiskers on twee so smashingly, except maybe for Black Tambourine, who Willson manages to respectfully and quite lovingly shout out to as a fellow traveller. If he gets you to check out Complete Recordings, or maybe 2010’s Black Tambourine, which appends four new tracks to the Tambo’s earlier work, then he’s done God’s work as he intends to.
So I’ll leave you in Nick’s hands for the first two WH albums, but let me point out that for those who, like me, adore both of the Withered Hand albums, you might as well have a third glass of Belhaven to quench your thirst. For Willson has been busy releasing EPs, both real and virtual, that contain tunes every bit the equal of what's on the albums, as well as a few collectible stray tracks for good measure. Listen to them like little shots of heaven, musical micro-brews. Or do as I do, drag them all together into an iTunes playlist: voila, you’ve got a bricolage as substantial as Nirvana’s Hormoaning or MBV’s EP collection (which I carried around in my own bootleg form for years before it was officially released).
So let me present to you my self-curated version of Withered Hand’s unofficial third album, New Gods and Sods. It contains the songs from these EPs: Heart Heart, You’re Not Alone, Religious Songs, and Inbetweens, all but the first available for download directly from the Withered Hand website. I’ve added the YouTube-only “Real Snow” and the “garage” version of New Gods’ “King of Hollywood”. That totals 17 tracks, listed below, only five of which show up on the two LPs, and all of those five (I believe) are different versions. (And I’m noting that Fortuna Pop is coming out with a 7” of New Gods’ “Horseshoe” that has a non-LP B-side I haven’t gotten ahold of yet.) A treasure trove for the anointed.
This set kicks off with the the rollicking New Gods teaser “Heart Heart”, which has a big beat and unison bully-boy “whoa-oh-oh”s that gets even my old bones out of the rocking chair. “My Struggle” is a skiffle, but the real treasure off the Heart Heart EP is “Gethsemene”, a breakup song that evokes the Passion of Christ without getting maudlin and does the neat trick of transcribing the “Cinnamon Girl” guitar solo to piano. You’re Not Alone leads with Good News’ “No Cigarettes”, followed by three choice non-LPs: Willson makes his guitar sound like an Oldsmobile car, everything’s all right and I feel fine, Che Guevara shows up in the best trucker song since “Willin’” (“Driving with one wheel in the ditch ain’t easy”), and Prince gets to choose the title for the last one.
The thematic Religious Songs EP begins with the title track, which is also included on Good News (“How does he really expect to be happy/when he listens to death metal bands?” Also, masturbating on a futon is the twee-est fucking thing.) The non-LPs variously include the drollest “It makes me feel like I am alive” ever, claim authorship over a Sonic Youth song, give a shout-out to AC/DC in a song about ordering take out and reincarnation, and go upbeat with “I Am Nothing”.
The title track to Inbetweens may indeed be Willson’s finest—it’s basically an inversion of “Come On Get Happy” done to the “Here Comes A Regular” chord changes. Perhaps that’s not so surprising, Paul Westerberg also wrote a song called “It’s A Wonderful Lie”, but Willson’s uses the word “physiognomy” in his. And there’s another AC/DC reference.
This could go on and on. If you are getting the feeling that stringing together Withered Hand lyrics is endlessly rewarding, you’re right, but not nearly as satisfying as listening to Withered Hand doing Dan Willson songs. Get as many as you can. Long may he run.
New Gods and Sods:
Heart Heart from Heart Heart
My Struggle from Heart Heart
Gethsemane from Heart Heart
No Cigarettes from You're Not Alone
Oldsmobile Car from You're Not Alone
Big Ten Four (Paul's Song) from You're Not Alone
R U Courageous? from You're Not Alone
Religious Songs from Religion Songs
New Dawn from Religion Songs
Takeaway Food from Religion Songs
I Am Nothing from Religion Songs
Inbetweens from Inbetweens
Walls from Inbetweens
Oldsmobile Car (Temple Bell version) from Inbetweens
(it's a) Wonderful Lie from Inbetweens
King of Hollywood (Garage Version)