When you read or hear about New Order’s career, you probably find lots of comments about how they influenced dance music. And, while the opening beats of “Blue Monday” doubtless inspired a generation of nerds with drum machines and laptops, that’s only half the story. Over the last decade or so, the sound of the band’s more “organic” work has infiltrated what we now know as “indie”.
Maybe when you have such a strikingly unique sonic signature, it’s that much more obvious when you rub off on others. After all, very popular bands were playing off the New Order sound before New Order themselves were finished exploring it. At their best, Bernard Sumner’s plaintive/angry, pretty/sloppy guitars, Peter Hook’s “lead bass” lines, and Stephen Morris’s perfectly-calibrated martial drums created a powerful, effortless synergy. And they sounded like nothing else, although everything from U2’s “I Will Follow” to the Cure’s “In Between Days” sounded more than a little like them. More recently, Wilco, Pernice Brothers, and anyone to whom you could apply the terms “retro” or “electroclash” seem to have taken notice.
What does all this have to do with Bella, the winning Vancouver-based trio whose second album, No One Will Know, was released in September 2007 to positive reviews? Well, it’s one thing to pay tribute to a band’s sound on a track or two, or to allow it to serve as an influence. But, really, based on the evidence here, Bella should be paying a straight percentage to Sumner and company.
The scraggly guitars, rapid-fire drumming, melodic bass, and general sense of controlled chaos are primary characteristics of most of No One Will Know‘s dozen tracks. But Bella are not exactly New Order Mark II. They’ve given everything a coat of shiny, glittery paint, adding modern indie touches like squishy analog synthesizers and bursts of garage-band noise, not to mention appearances from Starflyer 59’s Jason Martin and half of Imperial Teen. All three Bella members take turns on vocals, with Tiffany Garrett Sotomayor and Charla McCutcheon lending their wide-eyed, girlish cooing to most tracks. The result is that No One Will Know is disposable ear candy, and as such, it does its job pretty well.
Bella’s energetic approach to songwriting and playing is easy to appreciate. Opener “Give It a Night”, which bears more than a little resemblance to New Order’s “Age of Consent”, is a pretty accurate predictor of the album as a whole. It’s short, sweet, and catchy, with a decent chorus and some head-in-the clouds “aaah, aaah, aaah"s. A trio of similarly catchy, kinetic numbers follows, and then comes the first of a pair of lead vocals by Cameron Fraser. “Ocean or a Lakeshore” adds some acoustic guitar and a bit of singer-songwriterly weight to the mix, and comes off like one of Placebo’s midtempo numbers.
For the most part, Bella’s attempts at introspection and balladry are almost too trite to tolerate. When, on “For the Last Time”, the gang sing “I want you to know me / Like never before”, you’ve heard it before. The whimsical, twinkling keyboards and earnest, naïve vocals are straight out of mid-period Smashing Pumpkins. But without the melancholy magic that kept the Smashing Pumpkins’ tracks from being groaners, “For the Last Time” plays like an in-class high school love note that was intercepted by the teacher.
More often, though, Bella avoid such an embarrassing fate. “Settle Down”, a slow-moving breath of air, gets the mellow vibe down much more effectively. “Go” provides the album with its one true breakout moment, when a brooding verse gives way to a genuinely mean-sounding, guitar-heavy, wordless chorus. And “Unless You’re Golden” manages to navigate a disco beat successfully.
No One Will Know is very much a batch of songs that were created with the same, interchangeable parts. Some songs are faster than others, and some are better than others, but they all share the same overall texture. And, given Bella’s chosen palate of trebly sounds and saccharine arrangements, that means the album works best in small doses. Like any candy, it’s sweet and immediately gratifying, but it’s not going to stop you being hungry for something more substantial.