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Split Enz broke up when I was ten years old, and I'm pretty confident at that stage I'd never heard of them. They were, however, eventually revealed to me via my Crowded House fan-dom a further ten years on. I bought the History Never Repeats "best of" album and become instantly obsessed with the strangest song I'd ever heard, "Late Last Night". At some point I noticed that the songwriting credit for that song differed to every other song on the album, and my infatuation with the musical genius that is Phil Judd was born.

I'll always remember one night watching some random movie on TV, title of Death in Brunswick. Every ad break they played the soundtrack title as an outro, and I kept thinking to myself, "that is an awesome tune, I'm gonna find out what that is". Of course, what I discovered, soundtrack by Phil Judd. You realise your music affiliations are no accident. Your auditory pathways are wired a certain way, and that's just the way it is.

I worked in Auckland for a brief period in the mid-90s, and in the infancy of the internet, found someone on the South Island prepared to liberate themselves from their vinyl copy of Private Lives. I returned to my hotel every lunchtime checking for its arrival. The magical day that it did, I didn't get past the first three glorious minutes of Dream'n'Away, listening to it on needle-repeat, returning to work an hour and half late.

All of the above serves as nothing more than a somewhat verbose disclaimer that I am indeed a long-time, unabashed Phil Judd fan.

Striding forward a span of years, having already basked in the unexpected revelations of Novelty Act and Love Is A Moron, I almost accidentally happened upon the release of Play It Strange a week ago, and drank it up as eagerly and expectantly as I did with Private Lives 20 years previous.

Play It Strange opens with the overtly-Lennon-esque Renovators Dream, a tightly woven 60s retro pop classic. In its cleverly lyric'd posture, as Judd sings 'GPS it, google it, it's impossible to find... on a no-thru road, it's a cave, but it's all mine", you get the feeling Judd has steeled himself to produce an album capable of standing alone as a time capsule of his songwriting and lyrical genius. It is one of the three or four standout tracks on the album, an album that makes abundantly clear the fact that lyrically, musically and vocally, Phil Judd is at the top of his game on Play It Strange.

The other tracks to fill the blue ribbon category are When, Salamander Man and Kite Flying Day. If anyone has ever called themselves a fan of Judd's music, they would do themselves an enormous disservice by failing to immerse themselves even in that abbreviation of the album. Those tracks might just enbody Judd's intensity of emotion and under-appreciated songcraft more than any others in his amazing back-catalog.

Kite Flying Day, in my opinion the standout track on the album, exhibits a startling array of musical mood swings in its three and half power-packed minutes, packaged as neatly as any pop song you would ever hope to hear. From its soundstage, it draws heavily but unobtrusively from the finer moments of Sound of Trees.

"When" is a hauntingly beautiful tale of love and loss, and is Playing it Strange's answer to Falling Apart, but without the somewhat tarnishing references to gaffer tape. As Phil stabbingly pleads "oh, am I invisible", you find yourself hopelessly wedded to the tragedy of the melody. To me, it is in the same vane as "True or False", which ranks it among one of the finest songs Phil has ever recorded.

If The Swingers were still a functioning entity in 2014, Salamander Man is probably what they would be producing. Except they aren't. Another flawlessly crafted pop song, as if Phil wants to enter into posterity the fact that he can produce this stuff on demand. Probably betraying his inner demons, Phil with pop-God catchiness sings "sometimes, when I stick my head up, people taking pot shots, tryin' to shoot me down", I shake my head at the twisted, gripping melancholy he effortlessly evokes with his idiosyncratic, quirky and maddeningly catchy songs.

While those four are my personal highlights, it is an album that sits well played start to finish, and there are no obvious weak spots. The lost Enz track that lends its name to the album and has finally been entered into the digital record, more than does justice to its legendary origins. It is also worth recognising that Phil's unique acoustic guitar playing has never really morphed, still reminiscent of his work on Titus and Sweet Dreams. Several tracks on Play It Strange bear that out impressively, but none more so than the title track itself.

It is quite simply a work of art.

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I came to know the Split Enz catalog long after the band's demise, and the Phil Judd period of the band's history has never been my favorite.  And other than seeing a few YouTube videos of the Swingers or Schnell Fenster, I have been relatively in the dark about Phil Judd's solo career.  So I guess you could say that I hardly qualify as being a long-time, unabashed Phil Judd fan ...


So imagine my surprise at being completely blown away by listening to Judd's "Play It Strange" tracks on Soundcloud.  The first time through, I tried to listen to them while doing other things, and I found myself stopping in my tracks to focus on the songs.  Repeated listenings only made me appreciate them more.  Musically muscular, lyrically fascinating, full of hooks and riffs ... wow! ... the only thing I'm still not fully in love with is Phil's (at times) kooky voice.


For me, this album is FAR more interesting and fun than anything I've heard out of the Finn camp in the last few years, and that's saying something, because I'm a particularly huge fan of Neil and Liam (whose "I'll Be Lightning" album had a similar "Wow!" effect on me), and I cheer for their success -- and, by extension, my listening pleasure -- mightily.


It just makes me think of what could have been and what perhaps could still be (?) -- those great Neil and Tim harmonies floating over Phil Judd's lyrics and musical arrangements.  I mean, if "Play It Strange" had the Finns doing the vocals, I would probably listen to no other albums for a few years.

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