Something that really gets my goat is people’s inflexibility and, when it comes to music reviewing, the reviewer’s inability to look at anything outside their particular sphere of expertise. Without naming names, a review of a progressive album that I gave 5/5 to really cheesed me off, the reviewer was obviously a hard or heavy rock fan and, perhaps, felt that reviewing prog was below him. In any case, he went on to review the album as if it was a rock album and from a rock point of view, not taking anything else into account or taking the album at face value or what the album was trying to produce.
My favourite type of music is progressive rock, my name gives it away! But in no way are my eyes closed to any other genres and I will listen to, enjoy and review with an open mind, any type of music to the best of my ability. With this in mind, when I offered to review Dutch alternative pop band Cloudmachine’s new album ‘A Gentle Sting’, I had no idea what was in store for me or what to expect but, as ever, I went in with no pre-conceived ideas or opinions and endeavoured to give the album the fair review that any record deserves.
Cloudmachine is the band centred round singer Ruud Houweling. Some critics in the Netherlands regard him one of Holland’s finest songwriters. So far, the band have released “Hum Of Life” in 2006 and “Back On Land” in 2009, both albums being considered as truly beautiful guitar pop with captivating melodies and a sweet melancholic undertone. The new album, ‘A Gentle Sting’ is said to be many coloured but more accessible than its predecessors without changing the characteristic Cloudmachine sound.
Cloudmachine is completed by Marco Kuypers (piano, organ), Richard Lagerweij (guitars), Ray Edgar Duyns (bass) and Mike Coolen (drums) and, on this album, backing vocals are provided by Jon Allen.
“It would be nice if some songs last a while,” Houweling says, “I’ve always been interested in timeless songwriters like John Lennon, Tom Waits, Elliott Smith and Neil Finn. I love music that is stronger than trends. The essence of a song should be in its core and not in the sauce that’s covering it. We try to work with people who feel the same way.”
There is a sweet, melancholic tone running throughout the album, impressive opener Hands on Skin has a real 90’s Britpop feel to it with its catchy riffs and smooth chorus, Ruud’s vocal deliver is precise and full of emotion and lends itself perfectly to this kind of music, blending brilliantly with the chiming guitars. The band follow a time honoured formula of keeping the songs short and compact, Stone in the River carries on in the same vein and, to my ears, it has strong touches of 90’s Britpop bands The Verve and Cast, there is no need for any musical complexity when the song writing is as good as this, catchy and memorable, the extended run out is really impressive.
The mood changes with To Be Found, this was the first song I ever heard by the band and it is subtle and moving with Houweling delivering a restrained but emotive vocal performance. The strings are an ethereal addition that add a real depth to a song that could have come from a stage musical, captivating and impelling as it is. Jacob’s Ladder is all about hope and has a really nice keyboard tone that sticks in your mind, a jingling riff and strong vocals give west coast feel to the song, uplifting and inspirational.
All dreamy and mellow, She’s Playing With My Head Again is a nod to a long distance relationship that Houweling was in and takes on the general feeling of hope that infuses the whole album. His vocals are at their most powerful on this track. The accordion is a brilliant touch and adds a whimsical feel to proceedings, another short but incredibly sweet song. Ghost Wind begins with a gently strummed guitar and feels more mature and grown up than the other songs so far, bittersweet in context and texture and incredibly poignant. It holds you rapt throughout, pensive and fraught with a feeling of suspense. This track is pared back and anything surplus to requirements has been left out.
Time Passes for Everyone returns to that melancholic feeling of hope, uplifting but, with a slight touch of a sorrowful undertone. The gentle guitar and laid back keyboards match Ruud’s expressive vocal perfectly and the strings just add an additional layer of pathos. If this is guitar pop I’ll have more of the same thank you, there is a genius at work here. The guitar and keyboard inspired introduction to Against the Tide is full of passion and soul and the song plays out in much of the same vein, another superlative vocal from Houweling and a nice catchy chorus take your soul and lift it high, this is ‘feel good’ music of the highest calibre.
Catchy, upbeat and fun, that’s Edward Hopper’s Eyes, there is feeling of mischief running all the way through this song and it gets your foot tapping, you can’t help yourself humming along. Another example of the song writing skill employed on this album, you are left with a definitive feeling of hope deep down in your core as the lively drumming and joyful guitar playing infuses into you. The mood changes with Broken People, a darker track that relates to people with slight flaws in them, those that cannot shine because they are covered in a layer of something. The song has a mournful and sombre tone that is amplified by the subtle strings yet, the innate quality of the music always shines through. This track is the rough diamond of the album and, in its own way, is a little gem.
In no time at all we have come to the final track on the album. The Mist is Rising is another track that has an initial veneer of a darker definition, soulful and wistful but, when the vocals rise out of the mist they do so with power and verve, invoking thoughts of a brighter day that banishes the mist away. It is a thought provoking track that asks questions of you, the listener and leaves you to contemplate the innate qualities of this interesting album.
It would be easy to file this album in the guitar pop category and label it interesting but without lasting substance but, if you are prepared to dig deeper and let the songs wash over you more than once, there is an innate depth to ‘A Gentle Sting’ that grabs at you and demands your attention. It refuses to be categorised and is a worthy addition to any one’s music collection, it will be staying in mine, that’s for sure.