Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Cut Off Your Hands - You and I

You and I has all the components to be an outstanding release: its songs are frenetic and punchy, with driving, hook-laden rhythms, ringing guitars, pounding drums and melodies too obvious to miss. Because of these qualities, it's not hard to imagine these songs being played to packed, sweaty clubs or even arenas full of 20-something fist-pumpers. The album is as arena rock friendly as indie pop gets. Now all that Cut Off Your Hands needs are the arenas.

Nevertheless, this debut album from the New Zealand-based foursome is overwhelmingly dull, listless and repetitive. It's often difficult to distinguish its songs from the work of other bands tramping similar ground, with the album resembling something that sounds like an immature, clumsy copulation between Bloc Party and Franz Ferdinand. The same formulaic and overly generic blueprint is utilized ad nauseam: songs like "Happy As Can Be," "It Doesn't Matter" and "Closed Eyes" sound like little more than a band going through the motions of what indie pop is expected to sound like. There's not necessarily anything wrong with a band sticking to a certain style - you could reasonably argue that this is actually what most artists do - but when that style offers few tricks or surprises, it makes for a bland and monotonous album.

Arena rock music carries with it the stigma of being impersonal, with anthemic chords and mailed-in lyrics substituted for where a heart should be. You and I frequently shares these flaws. Although the lyrics contain a narrative arc that explores heavy things like religious doubt, childhood nostalgia, death and failed, fucked up relationships, the songs sound as if they're sung from the point of view a distant, and entirely disconnected, observer. A thick layer of disinterest kills songs like "Oh Girl" and "Turn Cold," where Nick Johnston's vocals are practically robotic in their lack of emotion. Any momentum gained by the music is negated by this all-too-passive and detached vocal delivery.

Two songs veer dramatically in an acoustic direction and suggest that Cut Off Your Hands is capable of more than by-rote pastiche. "In the Name of Jesus Christ" features sparse guitars, strings and hushed background vocals as it reflects on the role of religion in childhood with a mixture of sincerity and mostly cynicism. Despite the sense of community mentioned in the song, the narrator can't help but sardonically note that the religious conversion of a "reformed thug" still didn't prevent his daughter from getting pregnant at 15 or his wife from getting cancer. Closing track "Daniel" likewise relies on a gentle guitar melody and minimal additional instrumentation; here, Johnston's singing is powerful and moving. The song expresses a fatalistic and bleak sentiment about both life and religion, with Johnston singing about someone who dies of cancer "despite the prayers of his church and of his wife and his kids."

You and I too often sounds like a mediocre distillation of recent indie music trends, with the majority of its songs adhering to this predictable template. Despite its undeniably catchy arrangements, the album creates the impression of a band trying to be willfully indifferent. Only when the band strips away this icy exterior does the album ever really connect with the listener.

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