[1 February 2009]
New Zealand’s Cut Off Your Hands are pleasant enough. They write affable power pop, borrow from bands you possibly like, and might lodge a few hooks in your brain over the course of their first full-length, You and I. Given their youth, it’s easy to give them a pass when they can’t quite reach the heights of their obvious influences.
“Oh Girl”, the third track, offers the first highlight of the record and an indication of the band’s abilities. Phil Hadfield’s springy bass line drives the song from bouncy verse to big chorus and back again. The album works best in moments like these, when the band goes for jangle over the pained earnestness of subsequent tracks. Lead singer Nick Johnson dials back his pleading to a more subtle level, and an economical guitar break contributes needed color. “Oh Girl” feels as breezy and light as a good pop song should. Although the press release refers to Johnson as an “Iggy-like whirling dervish of a front-man”, there’s nothing slightly menacing, much less depraved or borderline psychotic, about this track or any others on the album. “Oh Girl” and the rest of album find a group of polite young men with big ambitions writing straightforward pop songs. There’s certainly no shame in having pop ambitions, gentlemen. Own it.
Over the course of You and I, Cut Off Your Hands don’t shy away from their influences and are at their best when reinterpreting the classics through their own prism. “Turn Cold” bears a passing resemblance to “This Charming Man” by the Smiths, but the band is better off for it. Cut Off Your Hands are not the type of band to blow you away with their originality, but their strengths lie in approximating a comfortable familiarity born from the history of 20th century pop. Their competence in achieving this familiarity is no more apparent than it is on “Turn Cold”. By no means are they as innovative, technically brilliant, or clinically depressed as the Smiths were, but Cut Off Your Hands admirably reach for the band’s melodic dexterity. Michael Ramirez has Johnny Marr’s guitar tone down pat, even if his ideas aren’t as clever. (But seriously, whose are?)
“Heartbreak” and “In the Name of Jesus Christ”, sequenced as the centerpieces of the album, lamentably depart from the spiky power pop of the preceding tracks. “Heartbreak” aims for lighter-waving (or cell phone-waving) summer concert sincerity. I see visions of brace-faced teens swaying back and forth to the chorus, their cell phones thrust into the air, remembering their first tragic heartbreak. “Heartbreak” is overblown but harmless enough within the framework of the album. “In the Name of Jesus Christ”, however, departs too far from the script and seems woefully out of place on You and I. The track is a sparse, sensitive meditation on childhood, religion, teenage pregnancy, cancer… you get the idea. It’s the kind of overreaching youthful melodrama that’s likely to embarrass the band once they get older.
Thankfully, the band returns to approximating the Smiths with “Still Fond” and “Closed Eyes”, the latter tossing in some Robert Smith-style pleading for good measure. Overall, I find it difficult to actively dislike Cut Off Your Hands because they steal from the best. Perhaps on their next release they won’t wear their influences so prominently on their sleeves.