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Cut Off Your Hands - Hollow

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Artist: Cut Off Your Hands

Album: Hollow

Label: French Kiss

Review date: Sep. 7, 2011

New Zealand’s Cut Off Your Hands splices achingly pretty harmonies and luminous guitar jangles over a vaguely anxious foundation of rhythmic propulsion. They sound very much like the mid-1980s bands that softened and romanticized post-punk (and, incidentally, made it commercially viable): late-period Echo & The Bunnymen, The Psychedelic Furs and The Cure.

Consider “Hollowed Out,” for instance, the quasi-title track. It’s a dead ringer for Echo & The Bunnymen’s “Lips Like Sugar” in the way it layers shimmering, chiming gauzes of guitar sound and swoony choruses over the slumberous eighth-note pulse of bass. Singer Nick Johnston, surrounded by echo, takes the stance of a doomed romantic hero looking over into the abyss (without, it must be said, a single hair out of place). He works only the barest trace of yelp or snarl into his smooth vocalizations, adding drama by blowing out the vowels like Morrissey in great sweeping, self-indulgent arcs. And yet, god damn it, it works. The song is pure eyelinered, early-MTV’d sturm und drang, and a total pleasure all the way through.

Cut Off Your Hands occasionally pushes too far into sugary pop, as in the wheedling high “oh-oh-ohs” that kick off “All It Takes,” and the slouching, jangling, throwaway prettiness of “Oh Hell.” This is not a band that should look for ways to make their sound more ingratiating and radio-friendly. But where they follow tougher instincts, as on the aggressive “Fooling No One” or the rough and propulsive “Down and Out,” the sound works. Johnston’s singing, even at its most caressingly melodic, is balanced out by a friction and angst in the bass (that’s Phil Hadfield) and drums (Brent Harris).

There’s also a certain acerbity in the lyrics, which tend to be about the sharper end of love, loneliness, despair and death. The disc’s quiet, closing “Buried” surrounds Johnston with lovely hedges of strummed guitar and limns his voice with harmonies. One or two times through, you might start to notice that the words are far less calming than the arrangement; Johnston imagines himself drawing the dirt over his head in a grave and listening to the sound of nails being pounded in. And “Nausea” — with its beautiful splintering shards of electric guitar, its claw-fingered bass nudging up from the bottom, its shiny, sheeny romantic textures — brushes up against you cat-like, luxuriant, pleasure- loving. It’s only later that you notice that the song is about being helpless in the grip of despair, urging you to “Let it take you on / let it turn you inside out / lets it break you down / let it cling and crush.”

Cut Off Your Hands’ anthemic-ness — its lack of austerity and rigor — will put some people off. Yet there’s something rather good in the way these songs bring together luxury and despair. The fact that some of these tracks would sound just fine on Reagan-era “coming of age” film soundtracks (Pretty in Pink, for instance, or even The Breakfast Club) is not wholly a disqualifier. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard this kind of stylish, well-coiffed alienation pulled off so well.

By Jennifer Kelly

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