It’s unfair to look at Modwheelmood’s second EP, Enemies & Immigrants, as an Alessandro Cortini side project, because he founded the group long before becoming Nine Inch Nails’ keyboardist in early 2005. (Naturally, the promotional stickers on the album don’t shy from the connection.) Described as “alternative pop electronica” by its record label Buddyhead (co-founded by current NIN guitarist Aaron North) and composed of immigrants Cortini and guitarist Pelle Hillstrom (born in Italy and Sweden, respectively), Modwheelmood paradoxically sounds like no other band and is almost entirely derivative. The result is an innocuous self-produced EP that never offends but rarely wows.
Unlike the aggro-synth bombast of his high-profile day job, Cortini proves a delicate songwriter with an undeveloped pop sensibility and flashes of promise buried beneath the stifling indebtedness to others in his songwriting and sound. His lack of confidence in his voice is palpable yet occasionally effective, an ultra-sensitive timbre distinct in its feminine qualities. Still, an over-reliance on reverb, echoing delays on the end of many lyrics that are frequently buried in the mix, reveals a singer still searching for his vocal comfort level.
That comfort level is greatest when Cortini is dialing up his octave-bending theramin-like good vibrations, layering backgrounds with eerie melodies. (Not coincidentally, the band’s name refers to a keyboard’s mod wheel, which controls the pitch-shifts, octave bends and other modulations that mark Enemies & Immigrants‘ most distinctive moments.) Hillstrom’s guitar playing rarely stands out, a testament less to his over-processed tones and prominent role in the mix than the regularly uninspired chord progressions and effects. See “Delay Lama,” which kicks off with a numbingly formulaic chord progression that smacks of early 1990s acoustic guitar rock (harkening back to uncomfortable memories of Saigon Kick and Extreme) and corny wordless vocal harmonizing over the melody line.
Most songs fail to mask their influences or improve on what other groups have done better, such as the slowed-down Postal Service meets Dido in “As I Stand Here.” Radiohead looms prominently in the background in vocal affect, lyrical tone, production and composition in “Things Will Change” (ending with a truly Yorke-ian coda, repeating “You won’t understand”). It segues immediately into “Going Nowhere,” which starts with a Bends-era progression and morphs into a tune that owes more to second-generation Diet Radiohead bands such as Coldplay. Not unpleasant, but sorely lacking the recording budget than can push derived pop from mediocrity to savory ear candy.
Which is not to say the album is without merit. The highlight, “Money For Good,” begins with a mellifluous electronica intro before an abrupt shifting into a sugary pop song, owing equally to early- to mid-’90s Moby and contemporary teen-queen pop-rock. “Far away from everything that I used to be/ can’t remember why everyone must go (hello),” Cortini shares. “Far away from everything that you should have said would be better/ now everything is wrong.” Still, like others here, “Money for Good” is stained by jarring transitions between sections. You can almost see Cortini, mouse in hand, sliding song chunks around in his recording software to test which musical interludes or repeated chorus works best where. The result is unnecessarily distracting from a great pop song interesting enough to surpass guilty-pleasure status.
“Money For Good” and its un-ironic pop chorus brings to mind nothing more than the most hummable offerings from Avril Lavigne and Kelly Clarkson, albeit without the million-dollar production and marketability of defiant yet non-threatening teenaged female angst. If the members of Modwheelmood want to make money for good, the infectious simplicity of their most melodic choruses would be far more effective (not to mention lucrative) in the hands of a slickly produced pop-rock teen diva and her handlers. Sell, sell, sell!