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Billy Nicholls  (UK)

Still Entwined  (2004,  35.28)  ***

Billy Nicholls is one of rock's eternal sidemen, active since the '60s, appearing with and/or writing for the likes of The Who, Leo Sayer, The Nice and a host of others. Still Entwined is an album of mature singer-songwriter material, its more upbeat tracks slipping into breezy pop/rock, at its best on Keep On Dancing, Catherine and six-minute closer Memory Lane. Someone plays a rather squeaky samplotron flute line on There & Back Again and occasional strings elsewhere.

Joe Nichols  (US)

Man With a Memory  (2002,  45.01)  **½
Real Things  (2007,  51.11)  **½

Joe Nichols is a young traditionalist, a country singer in an age of Americana. Or is that just my perception? Non-Americans tend to forget just how ubiquitous the style is there, whole swathes of the country in its thrall. "What kinds of music do you have here?" "Oh, we got both kinds - country and western..." After his eponymous 1996 debut, it took Nichols six years to follow it up with Man With a Memory and, it has to be said; this is a country album. Not Americana: country. As a result, your chances of liking any of it are directly related to your tolerance for the style. Good Americana albums have increased mine, but it's still pretty hard to take when he sings about 'Sweet Betty Lou' in the title track. Not Americana: country. Tim Lauer is credited with Mellotron, amongst other things, but the only place it even might be is on That Would Be Her, with a muted cello part that's quite certainly sampled, anyway. Five years and four albums on (including a Christmas effort), Nichols releases Real Things, far from dissimilar to Man With a Memory, wilfully mixing halfway decent songs (he sends himself and his chosen genre up beautifully in Let's Get Drunk And Fight) with typical, clichéd country. Brent Rowan on samplotron this time, although the only obvious part is the flutes on My Whiskey Years.

Night Watch  (Italy)  see:

Night Watch

Nighthawks at the Diner  (Netherlands)

Transit Cellophane  (2002,  57.06)  ***

Nighthawks at the Diner (clearly named for the Tom Waits album, named, in turn, for Edward Hopper's iconic 1942 painting Nighthawks) were one of Rood Adeo's various projects, Transit Cellophane being the third (and last?) title released under that name. Fittingly, it's a Waitsian slice of timeless, smokey jazz, at its best on Please Crack A Smile For Me Baby, No New Messages and Observant Spectator, perhaps. Adeo and Bob Wisselink are both credited with Mellotron, with a nice flute arrangement on The Waltzes, The Polkas, And The Sad Songs and The Blue Lights and occasional background strings on Blue Light, both bogus.

Nightmare of You  (US)

Nightmare of You  (2005,  39.43)  **½

Nightmare of You are a pretty typical indie outfit, at the higher-energy end of the spectrum, making them marginally more appealing than the dreary variety, which shouldn't actually be read as a recommendation. Their debut, 2005's Nightmare of You is, like a lot of indie stuff, probably more lyrically than musically orientated, leaving those of us looking for a great tune out in the cold. Best tracks? Didn't really hear any. Sorry. Jason Lader guests on 'Mellotron', amongst other things, with background string parts on opener The Days Go By Oh So Slow, I Want To Be Buried In Your Backyard and possibly In The Bathroom Is Where I Want You (what is it with these titles, guys?). However... it sounds as fake as hell, although (as always) I could be wrong. It's a deeply unexciting album, anyway, so if I were you, I wouldn't even bother trying to find out.

NightShift  (France)

Full Moon  (2007,  49.25)  **

NightShift might be French and 2007's Full Moon might've been recorded in the late 2000s, but it's completely indistinguishable from a late '70s, Rhodes-driven West Coast effort like (let's say) Player; if this is irony, I feel a sudden (not to mention uncharacteristic) burst of sincerity coming on. I'm sure there's a market for this stuff, but I doubt whether I'm alone in thinking that it was bad enough at the time, so why subject us to it all over again? A couple of tracks slightly buck the trend, notably the rocking (albeit in a Foreigner stylee) title track and the radio broadcast-quoting intro to Dialog From The Sun To The Moon, but they're hardly enough to rescue this insipid album. The band essentially being a duo, presumably either Gael Benyamin or Jerome Beuret plays the Mellotron samples on a few tracks, with background strings on You're Free, upfront ones, plus flutes, on Hey Little Boy and more strings on Right Before The Dawn. Recommended? Don't be silly.

Nihil Project  (Italy)

Plough Plays  (2006,  51.26)  ***

Despite being Italian, The Nihil Project play an unusual blend of English folk and modern electronica on Plough Plays, working better on some tracks than others. Highlights? Opener Unquiet Grave (Twa Corbies), Days Of Yore and Tissington Hall Well, maybe. Sean Breadin plays samplotron flutes on Unquiet Grave and Weaving Wheat.

Kazumi Nikaido  (Japan)

Nikaido Kazumi no Arubamu  (2006,  61.28)  **½

Kazumi Nikaido's 2006 release, Nikaido Kazumi no Arubamu (Kazumi Nikaido's Album) is a strange cross between jazz and laid-back pop, most tracks being one style or the other, rather than a combination. It's a decent enough record of its type, possibly capable of appealing to Western fans of dream-pop bands, although I'm not sure what they'll make of its jazzier elements. I realise that the gentler tracks are trying to create an atmosphere, but half of the album's contents are over five minutes, several tracks topping six, possibly too much of a good thing. Somebody calling himself Illicit Tsuboi plays a faint samplotron flute part on Kyou O Tou Part 2.

Nil  (France)

Novo Sub Sole  (2005,  61.37)  ****½

Nil are one of what seems like a handful of genuinely progressive modern prog bands, making angular yet melodic music that probably sells very little. Their third album, Quarante Jours Sur Le Sinaï, features real Mellotron, although there almost certainly isn't any on their follow-up, Novo Sub Sole, which is absolutely no reason not to buy this excellent album. Eclectic, inventive and (relatively) original, it's less impenetrable than its predecessor, partly due to splitting its hours'-worth of music over six tracks, as against two, allowing for a wider range of styles, without throwing them all in together in an untidy heap. The Mellotron samples barely count as such, only occasionally sounding like a Mellotron as against some generic choir and string sounds. The choirs are used particularly heavily, although the nearest the album gets to anything like a Mellotron are a brief string part in 198 and the choirs in Abandon, but the fake Mellotron is not why you should buy this album. Very good indeed and more than worthy of your time.

Nil's Jazz Ensemble  (Peru)

Nil's Jazz Ensemble  (1976,  29.52)  ***

Very acceptable South American jazz, with subtle Latin undercurrents. Miguel "Chino" Figueroa's 'Mellotron' must be the string synth on Somos Nada.

Willie Nile  (US)

Streets of New York  (2006,  64.27)  ****

For someone you've probably never heard of, Robert Anthony "Willie Nile" Noonan is older than you'd expect, born in 1948. He released his first album at the age of thirty-two, although legal problems have interrupted his career enough that his fifth, Streets of New York, appeared twenty-six years after his debut. It's an excellent Americana/Dylan/Springsteenish record, albeit without the latter's grandstanding, full of songs where, although they're chiefly about the lyrics, he refuses to ignore the music, unlike many second- and third-rate singer-songwriters, many reviewed on this site. Honestly, there's not a bad track on it; I particularly like Cell Phones Ringing (In The Pockets Of The Dead), but anyone who appreciates meaningful songs, well presented, shouldn't have too much trouble connecting with this. Andy York plays samplotron, with background strings on Faded Flower Of Broadway and a more upfront part on On Some Rainy Day. An incidental humorous quote from legendary NJ native Little Steven: "Willie's so good I can't believe he's not from New Jersey".

John Nilsen  (US)

John Nilsen & Swimfish  [as John Nilsen & Swimfish]  (2006,  48.53)  ***
Wild Rose  (2013,  42.26)  ***

John Nilsen plays a kind of Americana/singer-songwriter crossover style on John Nilsen & Swimfish, a soupçon of powerpop thrown in for good measure, while Wild Rose, from seven years later, is a gentler proposition. Bob Stark is credited with Mellotron on both albums, but the background flute notes on Ride Together on the former and the flutes on If You Tell Me So on the latter sound like the same sample set to my ears.

Nine Inch Nails  (US)

The Fragile  (1999,  102.52)  **½
With Teeth  (2005,  56.05)  ***

Nine Inch Nails' The Fragile falls into the 'if I don't personally like it, how do I review it?' area. It's a huge sprawling double CD's worth of material, sounding, well, rather like NIN really, with no obvious stand-outs. Trent Reznor plays samplotron on a couple of tracks; The Wretched has some almost inaudible strings, while the title track has a quick blast of flutes, stretching below the instrument's range. 2005's With Teeth seems marginally less electronic than its predecessors, with more of a 'band sound' about it, although it's still recognisably a NIN record. Best track? Could just be Beside You In Time, although that probably isn't the fan's choice. One samplotron track from Mr. Reznor, with just-about audible strings at the end of You Know What You Are?

No Brain Cell  (Greece)

No Brain Cell  (2013,  45.41)  ***½
Monuments  (2014,  62.17)  ***½

Greece's amusingly-named No Brain Cell released their eponymous album in 2013, although it seems to be regarded as a bit of an 'introductory' record, not to be seen as their actual debut (unless I'm mistaken?). It's a slight mish-mash of styles, from opener Open Field (Part 1)'s dark acoustic vibe, to Endless Game's vaguely Crimsonesque feel, Illusions' prog metal and the fractured funk of closer The Start Of Something Beautiful, one of two Porcupine Tree covers. Samplotron choir on several tracks, but you'll never mistake it for the real thing. Inconsistent, but a good start. This leaves the following year's Monuments as their real kicking-off point, an unusually intriguing combo of symphonic and metallic prog, a touch of psychedelia thrown in for good measure, in a Porcupine Tree-ish kind of way. Highlights include opener Prologue (Monuments Pt. 1), the gentle Take Me Far Away and Hero Condition, particularly its reiterating harmony guitar line and jazzy (pseudo-?) Rhodes solo. Thomas Petrou's samplotron's all over the album, with choirs all over opener Prologue and Man Of Silence, amongst others and strings in a few places, not least on Take Me Far Away. If I have any criticisms, in places, NBC sound a little too like Porcupine Tree for their own good, while the album's rather (if not fatally) overlong and could've done with a bit of an edit to tighten it up.

No Doubt  (US)

Tragic Kingdom  (1995,  59.24)  ***
Return of Saturn  (2000,  54.43)  **½
Simple Kind of Life / Ex-Girlfriend (acoustic live) / Cellophane Boy CDS  (2000)  **

I've seen No Doubt described as 'punk/ska', which poses the question, "Where's the punk?" OK, there's some reasonably energetic rock thrown into the mix, but punk? I think not. Mind you, if the ludicrous Green Day are 'punk', so are No Doubt. Anyway, there's enough ska and reggae to support that bit of their description, complete with two-piece horn section. Turns out their singer is the hugely-overrated Gwen Stefani, known mainly to myself for her horrible 2005 reworking/mauling of Topol's If I Were A Rich Man from Fiddler on the Roof; irredeemable. She puts in a reasonable performance on 1995's Tragic Kingdom, while showing little sign that she'd become a (concurrent with No Doubt, apparently) solo success. Amusingly, the title track is a reference to Disneyland, complete with lyrical references to various urban myths surrounding the theme park. Samplotron flutes on The Climb, played by unknown (Eric Stefani? Matthew Wilder?).

2000's Return of Saturn is probably best described as a No Doubt album that does what No Doubt albums do, which pretty much absolves me from having to make any real judgement on it. No, I didn't like it very much. Gabrial McNair plays samplotron on the album's second single, Simple Kind Of Life, with faint choirs and a handful of flute notes towards the end of the track. 2003 brought a four-CD box set of No Doubt stuff entitled Boom Box, later split into its individual components. Disc 3 was reissued the following year as Everything in Time (B-Sides, Rarities, Remixes), largely consisting of b-sides and outtakes from Return of Saturn, with some other stuff chucked in. It's apparently pretty good as such collections go - I'll openly admit I can't tell; about the only track that grabbed me at all was their cover of Bad Brains' Sailin' On. Cellophane Boy, a b-side, contains a smattering of samplotron flutes, possibly from McNair.

No-Man  (UK)

Returning Jesus  (2001,  54.02)  ***
Schoolyard Ghosts  (2008,  52.58)  ***

No-Man (originally No Man is an Island (Except the Isle of Man)) are the duo of Tim Bowness and Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson, who have shifted genres several times since their formation, as far back as 1986. Their fourth non-compilation, 2001's Returning Jesus, is difficult to describe, although pointers include the 4AD label, electronica, ambient, Scott Walker and, er, prog, for what it's worth. I'll be completely upfront here and say that, while I know they're highly rated amongst certain sectors of the prog community and muso types generally, the album leaves me completely cold, although I'm fully prepared to believe that it's perfectly good. By and large, it's hard to tell exactly where the samplotron comes in, as it's mixed into an ambient stew with other string sounds, although the string part on Lighthouse is fairly obvious. Two albums on, 2008's Schoolyard Ghosts is, in many ways, more of the same, although Pigeon Drummer stands out for its creative use of distortion, while Truenorth's twelve minutes are 'No-Man go long-form'. Much more obvious sampled Mellotron this time round, with strings and choirs on most tracks, although they're all pretty obviously sampled. Do you buy any No-Man albums? Depends on your tolerance for proggy ambience conjoined with Bowness' crooner-inspired tones, I suppose. Good at what they do.

No. 2  (US)

What Does Good Luck Bring?  (2002,  36.10)  **½

What Does Good Luck Bring? sits at the indie end of powerpop, at its least dull on More, More. This appears to be yet another 'used to be an online reference to Mellotron use, now isn't' album, chiefly because it, er, doesn't contain any Mellotron, or even anything that sounds slightly like one.

Noctis  (Australia)

Silent Atonement  (2010,  102.13)  ***

Now-defunct Perth-based metal outfit Noctis aren't dissimilar to, say, Opeth in their 'progressive extreme metal', for want of a better phrase. The vastly overlong Silent Atonement is good at what it does, it just does it too much. Daniel Mazzarol's 'Mellotron', unsurprisngly, isn't.

Noekk  (Germany)

The Water Sprite  (2005,  46.27)  ****
The Grimalkin  (2006,  41.32)  ***½
The Minstrel's Curse  (2008,  34.23)  ***½

Noekk, named for one of Mitteleuropa's many goblins, ghosts and ghoulies, are a duo consisting of Markus "Funghus Baldachin" Stock (vocals/guitar/keyboards) and Thomas "F.F. Yuggoth" Helm (guitar/bass/drums), both ex- of Euro-metallers Empyrium, themselves Mellotron sample users. Their new project is a different kettle of fish altogether, having more in common with '90s dark Scandinavian progressive rock than anything else (hurrah!), little or no metallic riffing in evidence. The Water Sprite is their debut, reminding me, more than anything, of the heavily underrated Landberk, particularly on T.B.'s Notion, although most of the tracks have the gothic feel that band engendered so well. Just to accentuate the gothic vibe surrounding the album, as if it were needed, they cover Dead Can Dance's How Fortunate The Man With None, from '93's Into the Labyrinth; now there's a band who could've used a Mellotron...

Baldachin plays Mellotron samples, along with various other (sampled?) vintage 'boards. The choirs on the opening title track sound a bit waterlogged, but the flutes sound great when used and the strings do a pretty good job, but I'm quite certain these sounds have never seen a strip of tape in their life. The fake Mellotron work is actually quite magnificent, strings cropping up on every track and a beautiful flute intro on The Fiery Flower, strings fading in behind the melody, amongst other highlights. All in all, we're talking a bit of a top sampled Mellotron album here; shame it ain't real. The following year's The Grimalkin is, essentially, more of the same, albeit containing only three long tracks, with the attendant problem that an album almost identical to its predecessor is never going to have quite the same impact. Don't get me wrong; it's good, but just a little too like The Water Sprite. Plenty of fakeotron again, mostly strings, with the odd choir chord or flute line thrown in for good measure.The duo's third album, 2008's The Minstrel's Curse, is a more metallic effort, with (slightly) shorter track lengths, although it retains elements of its predecessors' prog soundscapes. As a result, this listener finds it slightly less appealing, although the quieter parts work better to my ears. I'm not quite sure what's going on at the end of the album, either; last track The Rumour And The Giantess gets quieter and quieter until it disappears altogether, followed by a several-minute gap, before a strident spoken-word part finishes things off. Less fakeotron than before, although all tracks feature at least a little.

Rasmus Nøhr  (Denmark)

I Stedet for en Tatovering  (2008,  32.48)  **½

Rasmus Nøhr's I Stedet for en Tatovering is a deeply unexciting Danish-language pop/rock effort, teeth-grindingly dull at first, picking up (albeit slightly) later on, with the likes of the jazzy Louis Trompet and the rocky(-ish) Slik. Jeppe Tuxen's Mellotron? Sampled background strings on Lille Spejl.

Noise Ratchet  (US)

Noise Ratchet  (2003,  23.09)  **½

Going by their last release, 2003's Noise Ratchet EP/mini-album (following two full-length albums), the band of the same name sat firmly in the 'alt.punk' ghetto, most of the disc consisting of punchy, emo-ish material, although closer Desire goes for more of a post-rock thing, sadly. Ben Moore plays samplotron strings on Desire, which do absolutely nothing to improve a pretty awful song.

Nood  (Norway)

Shaped Like a Taco  (2000,  75.52)  **½

Nood were essentially the duo of Per Platou and Ulf Knudsen, sonic experimenters par excellence, going by their second (and last) album, the UFO- (and female sexual organ?) referencing Shaped Like a Taco. Listened to in one sitting, it's all a bit much, to be honest, mad, Rhodes-driven opener Urban Latvian Stomp having little in common with the Indian Subcontinent Clavinet funk of Bang Ras, the manic drum'n'bass/sports commentary mash-up of Anderson, Brazil, or the R'n'B of Bumblebee, not to mention the rest of the album. Someone called Rhysea is credited with Mellotron on The Chair, but I'll be stunned if the smooth, reverbed flute on the track is anything other than sampled. Overall, then, one for fans of deranged sample manipulation, genre mash-ups and general lunacy, but the brief 'Mellotron' part is neither here nor there.

Noordkaap  (Belgium)

Programma 96  (1996,  51.15)  ***

Noordkaap were a Belgian Flemish-language pop/rock outfit whose career spanned, yet did not exceed the '90s. 1996's Programma 96 was their fifth album, including a soundtrack, a largely harmless, mainstream effort, slightly like, say, a better Oasis with a proper singer. Better tracks include the rocking Het Oudste Jongetje Van De Wereld and the sparse Meisje Jouw Show, but, while nothing here really excites, nor does it fully offend. Wim de Wilde plays Mellotron string samples on Satelliet Suzy, to reasonable effect, although all other possible sightings seem to be generic samples. Can I recommend this? Not really, unless you're a Flemish speaker with rather mainstream tastes, as it does little that can't be heard in the English-speaking world.

Nordagust  (Norway)

In the Mist of Morning  (2010,  58.50)  **½

I get the feeling that Norwegians Nordagust might find themselves described as 'prog', when what the observer actually meant was 'goth'. 2010's In the Mist of Morning has its moments, although few of them are connected to the overblown vocals, while chopping at least fifteen minutes from its length would've improved the album no end. Well, a little. Imagine a heavyish band with a keyboard player who've never had any experience of writing anything with any complexity whatsoever (shouldn't be difficult) trying to do exactly that. That's what In the Mist of Morning sounds like. We get samplotron strings and choirs all over every track, to the point where you wish they'd shut up. And stop using the samplotron. I actually wanted to like this, but was stymied at some point during the six minutes of the opening title track. I can't even think of anything encouraging to say to the band, not that they'd take any notice, anyway.

Markus Nordenstreng  (Finland)

Songs From Red Hill  (2007,  53.13)  **

Markus Nordenstreng's Songs From Red Hill shifts between lightweight Americana, lite jazz and gospel-lite, the common denominator being 'lite'. This is an utter dullard of an album, with no obvious redeeming features. Nordenstreng supposedly plays Mellotron, although online references appear to've... disappeared. No surprise, as he doesn't.

Nathalie Nordnes  (Norway)

Join Me in the Park  (2005,  40.39)  **½

Join Me in the Park is Nathalie Nordnes' second album, a combination of breezy pop/rock and jazz-inflected pop, at its least dull on Recall 53 and Open Your Eyes, potentially pointing the way towards a more adult career, which now appears to be on hold. Nordnes allegedly plays Mellotron on Recall 53, but the background flute part fails to ring true.

Odd Nordstoga  (Norway)

Luring  (2004,  44.31)  ***

Odd Nordstoga broke through commercially in his early thirties after the release of his second solo album, 2004's Luring. Best described as Norwegian pop/folk, it's a cheery record, full of accordions, massed male voices, banjos and fiddles, which is actually rather better than it sounds. Top tracks? I'm not sure I'd go that far, but the balladic Orda Du Gav Meg and Borga I Ur work well. Cropredy Festival Friday afternoon fare, if that means anything to you. Kåre Chr(istoffer) Vestrheim plays samplotron, with a brief descending string line on Farvel Til Deg, a string part doubling the real violin and cello on Borga I Ur, chordal strings on Kom and a brief, uncredited string part on closer Sjøfararsong.

Norfolk & Western  (US)

Dusk in Cold Parlours  (2003,  39.24)  ***½
A Gilded Age  (2006,  32.10)  ***
The Unsung Colony  (2006,  46.56)  ***
Dinero Severo  (2010,  52.58)  ***½

Norfolk & Western (doubtless named for the old railroad company) play an intriguing old-tyme Americana/indie crossover, where the dusty American West is sporadically sharply juxtaposed with modern guitar rock, which actually works better than you might expect. All this from a band who apparently incorporate a genuine century-old Victrola Gramophone into their act...

Their third album, 2003's Dusk in Cold Parlours (liking the UK spelling, guys), seems to be fairly typical of their sound, highlights including opener A Marriage Proposal, with its tremoloed guitar, the laid-back Impossible, Oslo and A Hymnal. Tony Moreno and Adam Selzer play samplotron flutes on Impossible and the linguistically-tangled No Else Where He Can Go, overt flute parts opening Oslo and Disappear. 2006's short A Gilded Age is a good record, without being outstanding, helped along by barely topping the half-hour, not giving it time to pall in any way. Best tracks? Probably the title track (banjo rock, anyone?) and the melancholy There Are No Places Left For Us, though nothing here offends. Rachel Blumberg plays samplotron, with flutes on Porch Destruction and Minor Daughter, an additional brief wobbly string part apparent on the latter. The same year's full-length The Unsung Colony is roughly comparable to its predecessor, stylewise, better tracks including How To Reel In and the lengthy Arrangements Made. Several of its tracks are uncharacteristically noisy, notably The New Rise Of Labor and Banish All Rock, although the overall vibe is still 'subdued'. The album has no Mellotron credited, strangely, but samples are clearly audible on the finished product, with a major flute presence on The Longest Stare from Dave Depper.

2010's Dinero Severo sees the band stretching out a bit (channelling Neil Young on The Long Goodbye) and generally combining their influences more effectively than before, at least to my ears. My personal preferences lie towards the rocky Turkish Wine, the talking blues Whippoorwill Song and the rockabilly of Sue And The Short Order Cook From Chesterfield, SC, but there isn't actually a duff track on the record. Blumberg, Selzer and Depper all play samplotron, with strings on Turkish Wine, Every Morning, Future Mother and Angel Feet, cellos and strings on The Long Goodbye and flutes on Sue And The Short Order Cook etc. and Approval From Anyone, pitchbent on the former.

Erik Norlander  (US)  see:

Erik Norlander

Nikolaj Nørlund  (Denmark)

Navnløs  (1995,  44.11)  **½

Nikolaj Nørlund's Navnløs strikes me as what happens when an artist applies the tenets of post-rock to singer-songwriter material, adding a dash of chamber pop to the mix. Sounds appealing? Not really, no. Any two tracks picked at random are decent enough, but twelve on the trot are somewhat mind-numbing, frankly. Nørlund's 'Mellotron' credit goes no further than the obviously sampled choirs on Som Glas.

Bebo Norman  (US)

Myself When I am Real  (2002,  49.14)  *½
Try  (2004,  44.19)  **

Why does Bebo Norman (where the hell do these people get their names?) remind me of buboes, the chief symptom of bubonic plague? I can't imagine. He's a pretty typical modern Christian artist, or 'Xian' as I sometimes, to my great amusement, see it written, as it looks like the kind of name given to the aliens in a particularly dodgy SF effort, probably written by L. Ron Hubbard or someone. Did I mention Hubbard in a CCM review? Oops... Anyway, Norman rose to prominence with noted CCM act Caedmon's Call (Derek Webb is another ex-member), who also used a smattering of samplotron on 1999's 40 Acres.

Myself When I am Real is his fourth and apparently most successful solo album to date. Why? Why is it his most successful? Why did anyone buy it at all? It's horrible, in that utterly insipid way that seemingly only committed Christians (maybe they should be) can manage, although, to give him some vague credit, at least he doesn't whine on about his imaginary deity incessantly, or at least, not as overtly as many of his god-bothering peers. It's still pretty awful, with the handful of less terrible tracks (Where The Trees Stand Still, My Love) being almost-palatable were it not for his over-emoting vocals, which grate within seconds of first hearing them. Carl Hergesell plays samplotron on one track, Just To Look At You; the unconvincing flutes are probably generic samples, but you can hear Mellotronic cello at the end of the track, as everything else dies away. As, indeed, you would wish the album to.

Norman followed up with 2004's Try; while I know it's a falling-off-a-log-easy target, wouldn't it be nice if he had? (Tried, that is, not fallen off a log. Well, maybe that, too). Instead, we get more utterly formulaic CCM, excepting his continuing (and thankful) refusal to make every track a 'worship song', for which I thank the god (small 'g') he believes in and I don't. Somehow, though, it's a gnat's less infuriating than its predecessor, giving it an extra half star. Like he cares. Samplotron from Matt Bronleewe this time, with a major string part on Soldier, although nothing obvious on Drifting, despite rumours.

Randy Northrup  (US)

Hearts & Souls  (2002,  52.27)  **½

Hearts & Souls sits at the less offensive end of the CCM spectrum, rarely completely horrible and occasionally half-decent, as on the hymnlike Sustainer and No Words. Donny Sarian's credited with Mellotron on two tracks, but the rubbish, barely-even-Mellotronic strings on The Rocks And Trees and similar flutes on The Hands I Hold are a joke.

NoSound  (Italy)

Sol29  (2005,  64.09)  **½

NoSound apparently began as Giancarlo Erra's one-man project in 2002; crucially, Erra was also a member of a Porcupine Tree tribute band (I wasn't aware that such a thing actually existed). After expanding the lineup, the band released Sol29 in 2005, so it really shouldn't come as much of a surprise to learn that it sounds a lot like Steven Wilson's crew, although they're not a clone. Their presence on many prog sites is slightly odd, in my humble etc. etc., given that they're more post-rock than anything; then again, isn't their particular strain of prog heavily reliant on that genre? Sadly, the album is rather overlong and dreary, with little change in pace to keep the listener interested (a trick the Porcupine lads have used from the off), although one or two tracks in isolation aren't too bad. Erra allegedly plays Mellotron on the album, although, in fairness, there's nothing credited, as the choir and strings all over Overloaded and the brief choir visitation on Hope For The Future are almost certainly sampled. So; one for Pineapple Thief fans, maybe, although symphonic progsters should definitely look elsewhere. Incidentally, the band released a DVD, The World is Outside, the following year, apparently consisting of audio and video material from the recording of Sol29. Maybe it tells us for sure what makes those Mellotron sounds? Maybe not.

The Notwist  (Germany)

Neon Golden  (2002,  41.28)  **½

The Notwist are a German English-language indie band, who sound like... pretty much any other English-language indie band, frankly. OK, they have a specifically German electronica aspect to their sound, but not enough to actually place them geographically, which I'm sure is the point. Although a handful of tracks have interesting elements (One Step Inside Doesn't Mean You Understand, the banjo on Trashing Days), most of them drone on for a while before finishing, which isn't really a very encouraging thing to say about anything much, is it? The exceedingly Germanically-named Roberto di Gioia plays samplotron, with strings on Pilot, while Pick Up The Phone opens with a solo flute part, carrying on through the track.

Salim Nourallah  (US)

Beautiful Noise  (2005,  52.30)  ***
Snowing in My Heart  (2007,  42.43)  ***
Hit Parade  (2012,  46.31)  ****
Skeleton Closet  (2015,  39.57)  ***

Salim Nourallah's Beautiful Noise is a decent enough indie/singer-songwriter effort, avoiding most of the modern clichés, at its best on Montreal, The Other Side and Slowly Gently Softly. Nourallah and Rip Rowan are credited with Mellotron, giving me a minor conundrum: most of it sounds sampled, but occasionally (notably the strings on Never Say Never), it sounds quite authentic. The album's real string section adds to the confusion; what are we hearing? I'm sticking with samples, at least for the moment. Snowing in My Heart is a similar effort, although its downside is a preponderance of rather mournful ballads, particularly closer The Terror, which ends the album in an unnecessarily downbeat mode. Nonetheless, better tracks include The Wicked Are Winning, It's Okay To Be Sad and the '60s-ish Erased, hauling the album up to a respectable three star rating. Samplotron from Nourallah, Rowan and Chris Holt, with flutes and upfront strings on opener Hang On and The Wicked Are Winning, flutes on So Down, flutes and 'sample use giveaway' MkII 'moving strings' on This Soft Existence, flutes on It's Okay To Be Sad and I Miss You, oboe (?), brass and flutes on It's Lonely When You're All Alone, flutes and strings on the title track and strings on closer The Terror.

The difference a few years can make... 2012's Hit Parade is a vast improvement, sitting somewhere between powerpop and singer-songwriter territory, with a total dearth of indieness, thankfully. Best tracks? I don't believe there's a single duffer on the record, but its highlights are probably Never Felt Better, Goddamn Life, Travolta and The Quitter, which is to ignore material of the quality of Everybody Knows and Miette. Nourallah, Rowan and Richard Martin on samplotron, with chordal strings on Channel 5 and a high string part on the title track. I don't know if it's just me, but 2015's Skeleton Closet sounds like something of a backwards step. Saying that, songs such as Permanent Holiday, Tokens Of Your Cruelty and the white reggae of Two Years keep the standard up, but too much of the album slips back into the rather clunky kind of early 2000s indie that I thought he'd put behind him. Just Nourallah on samplotron this time round, with something (high-end cellos?) in the background on Dead Man's Stare and This Town and a major string part on To The Desert.

Heather Nova  (Bermuda)

Siren  (1998,  60.50)  **

Heather "Nova" Frith was born in Bermuda and grew up all over the place, before settling in the States, so calling her 'Bermudan' is probably a bit of a misnomer, if technically correct. 1998's Siren is her fourth album, fitting firmly into the 'poppy female singer-songwriter' niche, making it all but unlistenable to those of us who prefer a little substance in our music; this is about as drippy as it gets, fake emotion spilling out of the speakers and staining your carpet. I'm sure it's all about the words, as usual, but so what? So what if she sings about love in all its guises? So what? So what? Sowhatsowhatsowhat, you boring little... And regarding track five, Valley Of Sound, you don't think she's heard these guys, do you? She's only a step or two away from them... Guy Fletcher's (Robbie Williams) samplotron finally kicks in on Widescreen, with a vaguely 'Strawberry Fields' flute part.

Nova Social  (US)

The Jefferson Fracture  (2002,  55.32)  ****

Nova Social sent me their rather good The Jefferson Fracture a good few years back, an album that falls into the 'intelligent pop' vein of Jellyfish et al., although they add enough of a contemporary touch to not be considered copyists in any way. The band use a variety of instrumental colouring, both old and new, so The Mechanic, for example, features MiniMoog next to a drum machine and a sampler, whereas Caravan Of Kindness is all-traditional, complete with string quartet. There isn't actually an awful lot of the credited Mellotron on the album, the only really audible moment being a few bars of strings in the middle of Sailor, while the flutes on I Got Lucky are way down in the mix. However... I don't believe the band ever told me where they'd sourced a machine, probably because I don't think they did.

Novox  (Netherlands)

Novox  (2005,  64.00)  ***½

After Dutch neo-proggers Cliffhanger broke up in 2001, keyboard player Dick Heijboer started Novox (or NoVoX, irritatingly), calling upon all the musicians he knew best for the project, making it essentially an instrumental (Novox, geddit? Eh?) Cliffhanger reformation. Their sole, eponymous album is a far more eclectic beast than anything by Cliffhanger, throwing heavy, slightly jazzy symphonic prog (Be My Guest, Look Up To The Sun, much of the remainder), hugely distorted bass-led madness (Valentine Fuzztrations) and even an impressive piano piece (Then There Was One) into the mix in a way that the original band would never have dared. Heijboer plays plenty of (fairly obviously) sampled Mellotron, with strings all over Looking Up To The Sun, choir on Never Mind and more of the same on a good half of the album, plus flutes here and there. This is certainly one of the better Dutch progressive releases I've heard lately, although the band's neo- past leaks through in places, so; cautiously recommended.

Nuno  (US)

Schizophonic  (1997,  58.33)  **½

Nuno Bettencourt was, of course, guitar prodigy with possibly the most inappropriately-named band ever, Extreme, who epitomised the commercial hard rock of the late-'80s/early-'90s, while never sinking quite as low as the likes of Bon Jovi. I can never think of Extreme without a) triggering my gag reflex at the memory of their atrocious hits and b) smirking at the memory of a couple of blokes I knew at the time, in those pre-Internet dodgy download days, bullshitting frantically in the pub about how good the band's new 'concept' album (1992's III Sides to Every Story) was, when it hadn't even been released. Priceless. Schizophonic is the by-now surnameless Nuno's only solo album to date, this time quite well-named, as it skips between late-'90s hard rock (Gravity, Karmalaa), acoustic balladry (Pursuit Of Happiness, Confrontation), near-punk (the vicious 2 Weeks In Dizkneelande) and the expected pseudo-commercial stuff (most of the rest). Quality-wise, it all sounds terribly ordinary to my ears, but then, as you may've guessed, I was never an Extreme fan and this album works in the same general area. If I was forced (possibly at gunpoint) to listen to one of its tracks again, I'd probably go for 2 Weeks In Dizkneelande, as it at least injects a little energy into the proceedings. 'Mellotron' from Bettencourt himself, with string and flute parts on I Wonder, although I've been completely assured that they're fake.

Paolo Nutini  (UK)

Sunny Side Up  (2009,  38.31)  **

I don't know what his public profile's like in other parts of the world, but if you live in the UK, it's impossible to be unaware of Italian/Scot Paolo Nutini's questionable charms, although at least his presence is largely confined to large advertising billboards, informing you in breathless tones of his latest release. When I put on his second album, 2009's Sunny Side Up, I was expecting your typical slushy singer-songwriter nonsense, so was surprised to be confronted with a varied effort, taking its influences from soul, reggae, folk, blues and other forms. Unfortunately, I can't say that Nutini does any of them any particular justice, his 'soulful' (read: ravaged at twenty-two) voice irritates rather than entertains; the country/blues of Simple Things, sounding as if it's being sung by a guy in his sixties, which some may like. Can't say I do. Producer Ethan Johns plays samplotron, with what I presume is a high flute part on Candy.

Katharina Nuttall  (Norway)

This is How I Feel  (2007,  35.09)  ***
Cherry Flavour Substitute  (2008,  36.21)  ***

Katharina Nuttall is a Norwegian singer-songwriter, whose debut album, 2007's This is How I Feel, is a mostly gentle, yet oddly dark piano-driven album, although a handful of tracks up the ante a little, not least opener Staring At the Sun and Place Of Hope. Best track? Probably her superb, balladic cover of New Order's classic Blue Monday, although her own material is generally pretty decent. (Jakob) Love Olzon is credited with Mellotron on Blue Monday, but the cello, string and choir parts on the song sound next to nothing like one to me, while Nuttall's 'Chamberlin' on In My House simply isn't. Nuttall's follow-up, 2008's Cherry Flavour Substitute (nice to see the British spelling used for once) is rockier all round, her delivery even gothier than before. Highlight? Her take on The Stooges' I Wanna Be Your Dog is possibly even sleazier than the original; no mean feat, I can tell you. Nuttall and Lars Jonasson Rinman are both credited with Mellotron this time round, but the strings on opener Sorrow Is The Colour, Hold Me, Shimmering Light and Shine are pretty obviously sampled.

Nuvole di Paglia  (Italy)

And Then...  (1994,  53.57)  ***

The original Nuvole di Paglia were an early '70s Italian heavy/progressive outfit, who, sadly, were unable to get a record contract and split in 1975. A posthumous live album, Live '73, was released by Mellow in 1992, but apparently has pretty poor sound quality. Vocalist Franco Serena reformed the band in the early '90s, with one other original member, releasing a newly-recorded album of their old music, And Then..., in 1994. Most of the album sounds like slightly Uriah Heep-influenced hard rock, apparently their chief style at the time, with the odd flash of progressiveness here and there, containing six English-language tracks and four Italian. To be perfectly honest, nothing here really stands out from the pack, as, like so many Heep-influenced Continental bands (and there were a LOT), none of them are as good as their chief influence, who had rather too many senior moments themselves for such a young band. Serena's English also leaves something to be desired; sorry, but calling a song Flashing With Love is just asking for trouble, isn't it? In fairness, Sei Stata Tu and Ombre Svolazzanti aren't bad, having something of a proggy bent, but it's all a bit second-rate, really. 'Mellotron' on one track (player unknown), although it sounds enough like (quite early) samples to end up here, with overdubbed flutes and strings on Love Me So In The Rain, so this is staying here until/if I find out otherwise.