Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Hard Act to Follow (Redemption 4)

“There’s a lot of good acts around
Plenty of profound performers
But there’s only one
Who really gets through to me”

I was destined to love the Split Enz, before I ever knew they existed; probably before even THEY existed.

I loved 60’s and 70’s pop.  I was weaned on those sweet 3 minute verse chorus verse songs, with nice tight harmonies, energetic if not exactly tight musicianship and the occasional bridge in a different key.  Throw a little panache and outrageousness in the performance and I’m doubly sold.   And the Enz, for however quirky, artsy and nervy new wave they could be (none of which are any kind of bad in my book) certainly made classic pop songs, even in their early pastoral and mid punky days.  Makes one wonder if they had started putting out singles just a little early (in the early to mid 70’s) how much more famous they would have been.

And that music (title) track to the bands down under was already well greased with plenty of acts that I was already loving; Olivia, Little River Band, Men at Work, Icehouse, Billy Thorpe (and my beloved Go-Bee’s and Oils just a little bit later), so it wasn’t much of a reach to be curious about music coming out of the country next door (that’s how I found The Chills, btw).

But it wasn’t just my pre-disposition towards ear worms and pure pop music perfection.  There were other conditions aiding and abetting.  The Enz were from New Zealand, which was right next to my most favorite place in the world; Australia, so NZ became my second most favorite place in the world by geographic relativity.  (I can’t exactly tell you why Australia was my favorite place in the world.  Something perhaps about being the farthest place away that I could imagine (that still had tv and radio) I guess.  Ayers Rock, North and South Island, Sidney Opera House, platypuses (I was the king of the marsupials biology research paper), and those crazy kiwis.  All my go to topics for junior high research papers. 

And their story, a band , with no precedents, starting a whole pop scene in a country where nothing of the sort had existed certainly resonated with me (just start a band!).  And somewhere along the line I read a liner note telling the story of young Neil Finn watching his brother Tim and Phil Judd hash out songs in the early stages of the band in Tim’s bedroom, only to have Neil eventually join his brother and bring even more assured pop songcraft to the band appeals to the underdog in all of us, right?

The Enz were made for me.  Were just waiting for me to find them and fall in love.

So, here’s my secret; and my shame.  I never really knew the Split Enz until they were already over.  Seriously, I know.  And I don’t know how it happened. I could maybe blame it on the radio (or the rain), but I’m not sure that’s fair, cos I listened far and wide and I’m sure WBIZ, WEAQ, and for sure WLS played “I Got You” at least, and that had to be a chart hit on at least one of the countdown radio shows I listened to.  But I never heard them at all in high school.  And although I was all over their closest musicological sibling; Squeeze, from practically my first day in college, the Enz escaped me there too.  For the first two years at least.  Just dumb luck I guess.

But that all changed in 1985, when a clerk at the Wax Museum in Dinkytown (thank you nameless mostly forgotten-no recollection of your face whatsoever clerk) recommended “True Colours” and I bought it, took it home and gave it a listen.  History (which never repeats) was made and although it took way too long, I was finally (and irrevocably in love with the Split Enz).

And what an album “True Colours” is.  Every song is perfect, but the beginning; from the taught menace of “I Got You” to the frenzied “Shark Attack” and the practically handclap organey new wave of “What’s the Matter With You,” (which could easily be Squeeze, I might add) I can think of few albums that deliver such a brilliant opening manifesto.  A fun instrumental is followed by another run of diverse brilliance from the upbeat pop of “I Wouldn’t Dream of It” to the gorgeous minor key ballad “I Hope I Never” to maybe my most favorite song on the album, the punkish pop of “Nobody Takes Me Seriously.”  That would be enough to make this a favorite, but just like a late night infomercial, just wait because there is more, more, more with no let up in quality.  Another tight pop classic in “Missing Person” is followed by “Poor Boy” which still seems like a late night paean to some outer space lonely planet of love.  The tough “How Can I Resist Her” verses fall into blissed out choruses and the album closes with the synthey “Choral Sea”.  What variety, what great songs, what genius hooks.  What a great album and how lucky that this was the one I heard first (and still listen to the most). 

I rushed ahead to the followup to “True Colour,” “Corroboree” (also called “Waiata”) as my next slice of Split Enz.  This album certainly had plenty of highlights.  “History Never Repeats” “One Step Ahead” and “Hard Act to Follow” are all well established in the Enz Canon, and there are a couple deeper tracks I have great affection for such as “Iris” and “Walking Through the Ruins” but whereas “True” maintains the pace through the whole album, “Corroboree” falters a little after the mid point in comparison.  Mind you, the songs and performances are still fun and there are still hooks to be had, but “Corroboree” follows the “True Colours” template just a little bit too much (even with a mid album instrumental).  And with a little more filler and fewer arresting ballads, it and can’t help but fail to live up to its predecessor.  But it’s still fun and not to be ignored. 

I probably let the Enz idle for a few months after that first rush.  I’m sure I was caught up in some other band or maybe the library got a new shipment of vinyl or something (or maybe I was actually doing schoolwork?)  Whatever the case, it was a bit of time before I began exploring additional albums (chronologically of course)  in the Enz collection.  But with “Time and Tide” I found another brilliant album.

The Finn boys must have realized that “Corroboree” was a bit of a let down, because their next album “Time and Tide” reaches the heights of “True Colours” and it could be easily argued, surpasses them.  Opening with the (I assume) at least semi autobiographical “Dirty Creature” Tim Finn has never sounded so genuine and personal (the sea shanty “Haul Away” grows on me with each listen still) and although “Six Months in a Leaky Boat” could arguable be called his Enz songwriting peak, he is remarkable engaged and consistent throughout this album.  Added to that is brother Neil’s  continuing development (am I the only one who loves “Sandy Allen” as much as anything the Enz have done) with songs even more assured and adventurous and you have another high water mark for the band.  And for once, the band fully utilizes the advantages of the recording studio adding strings to ballads and wall of sound effects to color each song even more distinctly (even hand claps on “Six Months”), but never getting too cluttered or in the way of the song.   “Never Ceases to Amaze Me” is a great example of this, with lots of fun production touches, but a very tight arrangement keeps the song zipping along.  A very rich and rewarding listen and it deepens with each play. 

Tim Finn was preoccupied with his first solo album (.Escapade”) by the time “Conflicting Emotions” came around a couple years later and it showed.  He had only a handful of tracks on the album and none of them met the high bar of his work on “Time and Tide.” It’s hard not to think that the Tim songs here are cast offs or something dashed off in the studio.  They have a demo-ish unfinished underwritten quality that disappoints.   Neil must have missed the dynamic with his brother as well because other than “Message to My Girl” (admittedly one of his finest songs) none of his songs reach his earlier peaks.  Whereas “Time and Tide” certainly spared no expense in production and arrangements, it was all applied with a deft touch.  In “Conflicting Emotions” the production is much less varied, a lot more dated and applied a little too thickly.  As a result, nothing really seems to separate itself.  Which isn’t to say that the album is a complete wash.  The chorus of “Strait Old Line” soars, and “Working Up an Appetite” (production aside the best of a limited sample of Tim songs) has a propulsive drive that is enjoyable.  “Our Day” however is a standout and underappreciated gem, showing off Neil’s ability to write songs of increasing complexity and depth both musically and lyrically.

And just like that, Tim was gone for a solo career and Neil was left to end the Enz.  To his credit, with the full songwriting burden placed upon him, Neil delivers a sturdy set of songs filled out in the second half by contributions from the rest of the band with varying success.  In retrospect, it’s hard not to see this album as Neil’s audition for his soon to be formed Crowded House band with much more straightforward songs, plenty of toe tapping friendly rockers and a much more commercial production approach.  While nothing jumps off the album as a quintessential Enz song (I still see “I Walk Away” as more a Crowded House song than an Enz track), there is a steadiness to the set that “Conflicting Emotions” lacked with fewer throwaways (the obligatory instrumental “The Lost Cat”, the Hester penned “This is Massive” and the forgettable aimless synthesizer track “Adz”) but plenty to recommend for those who may have lost track of this final Enz album.  “Breaking My Back” has a wiry guitar line and some synth shout outs driving a song that would fit seamlessly on the first Crowded House disc, while “One Mouth is Fed” sounds like Neil channel Tim’s darker songwriting tendencies (to great affect) with a bright chorus.  “Voices” is a lovely ballad and shows off some great singing by Neil and a wonderfully complementary sax hook.  “Kia Kaha,” which was a leftover from the “Conflicting Emotions” sessions has a completely catchy chorus with hooks aplenty and some fun background vocals tied to a playful rhythm track. 

And that was my Split Enz (re)collection for a decade at least.  I never went farther back than “True Colours” to explore any of the earlier albums and I had a nice singles collections to pick out the finest of those early singles to fill out whatever gaps there might have been.  Added to that, I had Crowded House (too many favorites to pick, although maybe “Temple of Low Men” if I’m forced to pick a favorite, even though every album has 3 or 4 songs on it that I’ll always have to hit replay) and a couple Tim Finn solo discs (favorite of which is the self titled from 89 or so) to keep my Finn fix current.  But eventually, as all roads must, I wandered back to the Enz and started working my way through the pre-True albums.

Maybe it’s because I ignored it so long, or maybe because it doesn’t fit neatly into the either the early artsy albums or the later polished pop albums, but Frenzy is a bit of a problematic title in the Enz discography for me.  It’s the most punk/rock oriented album of all the Enz output and I certainly appreciate the energy and vitality, but there’s never been any particular song that stood out for me.  Even the big hit from this disc, “I See Red” which is a perfectly fine punky/pop song just slips right by me. But none of that really makes and sense, because there is a lot to like here.  Phil Judd had left the band, but Tim’s writing seems even more assured and direct, with his most straightforward collection of pop songs.  And I’m pretty sure, Neil was a full member of the band at this point and although his writing was really just starting to develop, I am sure I can hear his influence throughout the tracks (“Mind over Matter” certainly points towards a different direction for the Enz).  Plus, the Rootin’ Tootin’ Luton Tapes (which are a world of fun) cast a large shadow over this collection, influencing either directly with a bunch of  tracks from that session making it onto the album or more surely transferring some sense of the fun and immediacy of those sessions into the proceedings put down on vinyl.   I’m sure it’s just me and some day “Famous People” and it’s hiccup of a chorus will catch my ear and the ridiculously pulsing “Hermit McDermit” (which again certainly sounds Squeeze-ish in its synth hook)  will get repeated replays from me.  And maybe the heartbreaking unadorned “Stuff and Nonsense”  will have me sobbing my eyes out, and I’ll be doing an awkward Benes Dance to “Marooned” (an Eddie Rayner contribution).  And of course, some day I’ll be past the “The Roughest Toughest Game in the World” and those harmonies and backup vocals in the chorus will sink their readymade hooks into my ears.  At least I always liked brokenhearted “Betty” and ominous piano drive of “Semi-Detached” even if I’ve never really gotten into the album.  Ah well, an Enz album to appreciate at some later date.  

 And speaking of appreciating at a later date, how could I have ignored the earliest work of the Enz for so long?

“Beginning of the Enz” doesn’t really fit in the official discography, but it sure is a revealing album and I am completely charmed by offhand ramshackle song writing and off the cuff production. Basically demo tapes of early song writing attempts, some of which saw light of day in reworked versions on the “Mental Notes” and  “Second Thoughts” releases, it’s impossible not to be charmed by these lost treasures.  Sounding nothing like the Enz of later days, Phil Judd and Tim Finn try a little bit of everything here and it all sorta works for me.  “For You” is lovely in a bedsitter pop kind of way (with unmistakable hints of Jethro Tull in the flutes), while “Split Ends” works the same formula with a more upbeat tempo.  In “129” you can almost hear the band the Enz will become, and appreciate the charm of the song even before it was re-recorded as “Matinee Idyll” for “Second Thoughts.”  “Lovey Dovey” has a great kitchen sink songwriting and production approach that pays off on the next few albums.  And “Spellbound” is of course, spellbinding.

With “Mental Notes” the Enz burst onto the scene with a brilliant blast of pop smarts, quirky ideas, intricately arranged songs, and a sly production approach that kept the songs interesting but weird;   a weirdness that would serve them well throughout their career.  “Walking Down the Road” starts off with a simple pop structure, but quickly breaks out of the pop mold into little musical detours into rock star-ism, psychedelic noodling and back to pastoral pop before deconstructing itself into cacophony.  And that’s just the first song.  “Under the Wheel” sees the band into interstellar starship mode, proggy in a way not too far removed from Yes (but without the excessive instrumental look at me-isms).  “Amy” and “So Long for Now” amble along well enough, but it’s with “Stranger  than Fiction” a sweeping pop epic, that the band really clicks.  “Time for a Change” might be a tad melodramatic, but “Maybe” rights the ship quickly with its jaunty rhythm section, leading the homestretch into the hippy-esque “Titus” and a return to “Spellbound.”

I have to beg off any comments on “Second Thoughts” and “Dizrythmia.”  While I know versions of most of the “Second Thoughts” disc (and “Late Last Night” from various compilations) I’ve always looked askance at the whole recycled nature of the album and never really wanted to give it a listen (although I should pick it up some day just to hear “Sweet Dreams”.  With “Dizrythmia,” recorded after founding member Phil Judd had left the band, I’d heard plenty of “My Mistake” and “Charlie” and a few others (including the great “lost” track, “The Great Divide”) but for whatever reason, I never got around to giving the album a proper listen.

Purely subjectively of course, but if you insisted, here’s my ten favorite Enz songs:

1.        “Six Months in a Leaky Boat”
2.        “I Got You”
3.        “Message to My Girl”
4.        “Hello Sandy Allen”
5.        “Another Great Divide”
6.        “What’s the Matter with You”
7.        “I Hope I Never”
8.        “History Never Repeats”
9.        “Hard Act to Follow”
10.     “129”
11.     “Voices” (bonus top ten track)

1 comment:

  1. A. Totally worth the wait
    B. There are so many great Split Enz songs that I have completely forgotten about. I can't wait to listen to them!
    C. How did I not know "Waiata" had another, better name?
    D. I love the revelation of paragraph seven and I am stunned that I didn't already know it.
    E. I had also forgotten about the Split Enz/Squeeze, proto-Blur/Oasis discussion and I appreciate the tantalizing reminder.
    F. Paragraph four is also a revelation. You don't have a secret stash of vegemite, do you?
    G. More than ever, I want you to be contracted to write a 33 1/3.
    H. This is my favorite thing I have read that you have written. Thank you, thank you! I love it.