Cut Off Your Hands: Hollow

[15 August 2011]

By Matt James

O the halcyon days of indie! In our bedsit slums we were recast as triumphant Kings and Queens. Princes of the Gutter! An armour of thrift store shabby chic. We built our empire within the mirrors of magical record sleeves, trailing vicariously in the footsteps of a seer’s serenade. The rain fell as diamonds, the moon was our spotlight. Lines were drawn, sides were taken. Our anti-gang gang, sullenly pouting, running with the dogs tonight. We scrawled our musical manifestos like warpaint across our tattered school bags. We courted fair maidens with tales of obscure B-sides and mythic secret gigs. We fought the enemy on the beaches…but we mostly ran away quickly. Aah the sound of alchemy! I pray it’s still out there and someone, somewhere is clutching newly born, working class angst against their heaving bosoms like they were the second coming. But the winning days of the Smiths, the Cure, and the Stone Roses suddenly seem so far away. In 2011, the idea that jangly guitars could “unite and takeover” seems like quaint romanticism. Almost laughable in fact.

Kiwi crooners Cut Off Your Hands have worked this corner before. Their perky 2008 début You & I was even guided by one of the Indie Illuminati, Sir Bernard of Butler from Suede. So having been anointed, sworn allegiance ‘n’ palmed Thou Sacred Indie Oath, they manfully step back up and reach again for the flame with shivering stumps. From generation to generation! Yes, Hollow is not so much as “inspired by” Indie myth ‘n’ legend as gleefully daubed in the blood of their snake-hipped, bedsit Bard ancestry and now running around the garden screaming, actually. Time to fly or die my underfed whippets…

Battle scarred but devoted, Hollow comes out of the gate fighting, whoop-ass akimbo. “You Should Do Better” is pure Lloyd Cole via Sun Studios. All breezy afropop guitar, skiffle drums, and a “full steam ahead, Captain!” chugga-chugga locomotive groove. Its come hither chorus is a summer blossom—“I ache for you still” pines Top Hand Nick Johnston. As throughout Hollow, it presents many an opportunity to parade your best Morrissey impression. 1-2-3, now hands out and grasp back to the heart, good! Good! Now sing to the ‘eavens and let the breeze rustle that quiff…and relax.

Besides the Spirit of El Moz, it’s the Ghost of his faithful companion Johnny Marr that leads the Hollow horse. The first half in particular has his Byrds-via-Ardwick-style guitar lines; intricate, melodic, beautiful. “By Your Side” is sweetly swoonsome. A devoted grandchild of the Byrds’ take on “Mr Tambourine Man”, it redresses its street orphans as unlikely heroes, offering solace and saviour to some fallen angel: “And if you wake up with that loneliest longing / I’ll wait alone by your side.” It’s the romantic heart missing from so much modern indie, blushing and true. Elsewhere the lush, poetic elegance of Echo and the Bunnymen is evoked in the twisting bass and yearning chorus of “Nausea” and the muscular, melodramatic, kettle-drum crashes of “Hollowed Out”. The latter is deep, deep Ocean Rain, but can’t help a cheeky paddle under the Stone Roses’ “Waterfall” with its spiraling, sparkling lead guitar lick. Yup, it’s a candystore for the children of ‘80’s British indie in here folks, the gang’s all here.

Eyeing the finish line and sensing victory, Hollow really cracks the whip in its closing dash. “All It Takes” is like a pure pop, sunshine supernova tribute to Smashing Pumpkins’ “1979”. So bright and warm I’d advise slapping on some sunblock. It feels positively snoozy, though, compared to “Fooling No One”. A tearaway, runaway train like REM’s “It’s the End of the World”, it carries such a rush of urgency it could cause whiplash. Infectious, euphoric and exorcising a lifetime of frustration and shattered dreams—“18 wasted months / Afraid of going back to just who I was.” Fists swinging in the sky, punching out the stars. “I’m fooling nobody / But me,” spits Johnston, his snarling drawl bottling the piss ‘n’ vinegar of a young Thom Yorke. 

By the time you get to “Down & Out”, Hollow has stormed the roof and is waving the victory flag. It possesses an electric, now or never, storm the palace vibe. Everything in place, this is the time, this is the place, staring not blinking, no retreat, no surrender. “I’d rather be down and out,” they cry like cornered martyrs being run out of town by an angry mob. The guitar’s a live wire and it feels like the last chapter of a vintage “underdog crawls from gutter, gets girl, wins game” fable. Tears and cheers all around.

After such a high, credit roller “Buried” sadly feels like the morning after. Skipping through the hopscotch footprints of “Reel Around the Fountain” before sailing off on the slurred mantras of Nirvana’s “All Apologies”, it’s a bit of a shy “don’t get up, I’ll let myself out” departure.

“We’ve heard it all before / What’s left is sprawled across the floor.” Yes on paper Hollow shouldn’t work, I know. It’s dated, desperate, brief, and massively, unapologetically derivative. Sometimes it does feel like watching kids trying on their parents’ clothes and playing house. Yet there is such rascal charm, joy, idealistic naivete, aching sincerity, and a will to succeed that it feels more endearing, marginally heroic than embarrassing. Don’t most bands start off trying to be someone else, then if they’re really, really lucky, find themselves along the way too?

Hollow is the work on a band on a mission. Like Dracula‘s Renfield howling “Blood is the life,” it’s drenched in the souls of the past in a frenzied search for immortality, wide-eyed and illuminated by its masters’ voice. After failing to ignite a million hearts before, they’re knowingly caught in a fight-or-flight face-off. Well Hollow‘s message is clear: “I’ll give you my gun when you take it from my cold, dead hands.” COYH may not have yet reached their Promised Land, but they’re at least headed in the right direction. I’m sure many lost souls will take more than a hatful of Hollow, and with it find shelter from many a storm. Now you kids scram before I call the cops.

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