The Withered Hand Christmas Special
By Lucy Cage
I do love a Christmas song. I really do. (Except when sung with lacklustre perfection by Zooey Deschanel and her indie-pop “I wanna band for Christmas, Mommy!” cohorts, in which case I am reduced to spitting turkey feathers at the internet and wishing it would stop.) The best Christmas songs can sweep you up in an orgy of hopeless communal ache for what never was and never will be again, will get you joining impromptu choirs and crying into your eggnog. And even the worst have sleigh bells. Pretty much everything benefits from sleigh bells.
Anyway, I got an email from Dan Willson last week, informing me that his band had a Christmas single out. His band is Withered Hand and if you weren’t paying attention when I raved about them halfway through the year, then prick up your ears right now, because by the time they release their next LP, whenever that turns out to be, they will be HUGE. I promise. Their 2009 debut, Good News, has been the very definition of a slow-burner; it’s still getting discovered and reviewed by interhacks the world over today, who, quite rightly, have been enthralled by just that precise combination of self-deprecation, vulnerability, foul-mouthery, bitterness, heart-grabbing melodies, reedy vocals that shake with an honesty that verges on masochism, and an adroitness with a strummed guitar that gets me where it matters. Dan, who was raised in a strict Jehovah’s Witness family, writes about the sordid realities and the luminous glories of a life strung through with guilt and godliness. His songs are studded with Biblical imagery but with a lightness of touch that avoids any vicarish awkwardness; his verses, with perfectly pitched alterno-god worship, also contain reverent references to Sonic Youth, Nirvana, REM, Pavement and Silver Jews.
Maybe it’s because I recognise the Christian guilt thing – moulded by shame yet still hoping for heaven – that the songs resonate so deeply with me. Maybe it’s the harmonies and the fiddles and the “la la la”s that play foil to the gritty bitterness of the lyrics and elevate them from easy folk ditties to something exceptional. He can certainly write: I’d place him with the greats who walk the line between caustic filth and raw heartbreak, up there with Mark Eitzel or Vic Chesnutt or, closer to home, Arab Strap’s pair of scabrous-savant lyrical genii, Malcolm Middleton and Aidan Moffat.*
So, yes, I was pleased to get news of a Withered Hand Christmas single. And pleaseder still to hear it, because it ticks the boxes I like such things to tick. Bells, cynicism, big swoopy tune; the will to romance thwarted by reality; ultimate redemption found, despite the coal-effect fire and plastic mistletoe, in the real snow falling from above, and in love.
Dan describes ‘Real Snow’ as “an anti-Christmas, pro-love song”, written “cos I hate feeling like I lie to my children once a year”. Ah, yes, the parental dilemma of how far along the line of Christmas bullshit do you take your precious children, how much of the silky lie to spin when the lie can make magic. I wanted to know more about his take on Christmas songs and the tribulations of being exiled from the rest of the modern world’s consumerist/pagan festivities, so I asked him some questions to set ‘Real Snow’ in context.
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