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Stuff CD Cover
Image © Universal Music 1997 
 

Canada seems to have more than its fair share of female singer-songwriters with individualistic flair; Joni Mitchell, Jane Siberry, Alanis Morissette, Sarah McLachlan, Chantal Kreviazuk. Holly McNarland is possibly the least known of the current cohort. Her first full length album Stuff (Universal Records (Canada), 1997) was released following the six song "Sour Pie" EP issued two years earlier.

Despite some fine reviews, Holly's album was overshadowed by the extraordinary success of compatriot Morissette's Jagged Little Pill which was then well on its way to becoming the best-selling debut album of all time. And by the time the Alanis bandwagon hit the buffers, a combination of adverse publicity and a second album (Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie) that had not an ice-cream's chance in hell of living up to the expectation generated by the first, Stuff had been out a year and life had moved on.

The album opens with "Numb." It's a strong, solid rock song with a very powerful vocal performance that leaves you in no doubt that Holly puts a lot of herself into the music, and like much of the album, there's a lot of anger here "Just another hit for the one you love / If you cared at all, youíd put me down ... I feel better when I'm numb."

The style and anger of the opener is carried into the second track "Elmo," - "Iím still thinking about you / 1000 ways to kill you." But there's a twist at the end of this particular tale which I won't spoil by revealing. Looking at the title of the next track "Porno Mouth," you're prepared for more of the same, but this has a much lighter touch, which serves to enforce the feeling that not only can this woman perform, but she can write too - listen out also for the lovely electric guitar break.

"Water" is an altogether different fish with a very downbeat, atmospheric opening with Holly singing in a restrained, ethereal manner and the band is supplemented by low strings. The chorus is clever in that by rearranging the order in which the lines are sung, the song's narrator undergoes a kind of metamorphosis as the song progresses. The vocal performance on this track is sublime. Best track on the album.

In contrast, "Coward" is one of the weakest - that's not to say it's bad, it just doesnít engage the listener in the way the others do - it's also one of the more derivative numbers. "The Box" is an out and out rocker that opens with the line "I had a box / a box that could talk," so Holly takes it for walk, (as you do) has a chat with it, meets a terrified egg, eats the egg, stops the box talking, says goodbye. I donít have a clue what it's about, but I enjoyed it immensely. She follows this with the beautiful, acoustically led "UFO," - a mysterious dream-piece; "Iím as liquid as the sea," she sings.

"Mystery Song" maintains the mood of "UFO." It's long vocalise over a soft pad and drum loop - in places it reminded me somewhat of Mermaid Kiss. "Just In Me" is short, which is good, because it's the worst track on the album. There's too many effects on the vocals and it lacks a melody. Skip it. The penultimate track "Twisty Mirror," opens a little like a stock Fiona Apple song, but whilst the vocals may have more power than Fiona, it lacks the subtly that Ms Apple and her producer Jon Brion would be likely to bring to it - and again, melodically, it's not as strong as most of the album.

The album concludes with "I Won't Stay," an acoustic song with a great atmosphere created by some neat reversed guitar - it all works well, despite the somewhat tentative ending, and is a refreshing contrast to the two rather bombastic tracks that preceded it. It also shows that Holly McNarland is an adept guitarist - she plays acoustic throughout the album as well as occasional electric.

Read further reviews, listen to soundbites and order the album from amazon.com here. Stuff is a very good album that was undeservedly neglected on its release. There's still time to put that right.--Jamie Field

 
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