Every couple years I decide to start from the beginning and go through the entire Finn catalog to see how my thoughts, feeling and impressions have changed. I don't know if my thoughts on every individual album are compelling enough to post here, but I thought I'd share my thoughts on the first three Split Enz albums.
I'm referring to The Beginning of the Enz, Mental Notes and Second Thoughts, even though I know BOTE was released later. These albums make for a fascinating interconnected trilogy that does an incredibly good job of capturing the early phases of the band and their transitions in style and sound. It also pretty much covers the songwriting era during which Phil Judd had a substantial role in the band, though I know he came and went a couple times in the years that followed.
The Beginning of the Enz
This is the only record of the Enz as an acoustic act and they come off sounding like some sort of psychedelic honky tonk fusion act. One thing I note is just how perfect "129" is in both its performance and recording. It is a sheer delight to listen to and really outshines the other tracks. How Tim, Phil and the others managed to record such a complex tune with such limited resources is astounding. In fact, producer Phil Manzanera would improve upon every previously released Enz song when he recorded Second Thoughts a couple years later, but he simply couldn't improve "129" and the BOTE version stands today as not just as the definitive recording of the song, but one of the best Enz songs ever put to tape.
The other standout track here is "Spellbound". It's the only jam-oriented track and its commitment to groove is something seldom found in early Enz songs. As testament to its staying power, even Crowded House would played it during Tim's time with the band and Neil has played it solo as recently as 2009. The re-recording for Mental Notes with Phil taking lead vocals doesn't quite have the same charm.
A final observation is that you could totally be forgiven for thinking that "No Bother To Me / Malmsbury Villa / Lovey Dovey" are all one giant song. That's not a criticism, but each song is full of so many stops and starts and different ideas that I would sometimes find myself wondering where one song ended and the next began. It's quite an epic romp through the collective musical mind of the early Enz!
This is, I think, the closest we will ever get to being at a live Enz show. I know people love to say that this album is marred by recording problems, but I've heard some bootlegs of early Enz shows and much of this is spot on. The only things missing are Tim's lengthy mock Shakespearian soliloquies between songs (thank goodness!).
One can do a lot of A/Bing between Mental Notes and Second Thoughts. IMO, Mental Notes still comes off sounding like a collection of demos and Second Thoughts is the first time the Enz sound like professional and polished recording artists. That being said, there's something about the Mental Notes version of "Stranger Than Fiction" that is strangely appealing. The sound effects make it appropriately eerie and demented. Manzanera cleans it up a little too much, but you forgive him because he nails "Time for a Change".
It is perhaps surprising that "Maybe" ends up being the only truly vital track from Mental Notes, though I suspect that if it had been redone for Second Thoughts, it too would have been much improved. Like "Titus", which follows it, "Maybe" is a terrific little gem that captures the brilliant duetting that could take place between Phil and Tim. Phil's angular character voice juxtaposed with Tim's sweet crooning. It doesn't always work (see "For You"), but when it does it is the essence of the early Enz sound.
If you take BOTE and Mental Notes as what they really are, demos, then Second Thoughts is not nearly as offensive as some seem to find it; most notably the band themselves. Everything here is so well executed that, even when a track doesn't surpass an earlier version, it's still manages to be a standout. Phil Manzanera makes "Time for a Change" into a show stopping climax and makes "Titus" into a weirdly magical and even regal ballad. The guitar solo in "Time For a Change" finally takes flight while the synth solo on the earlier version of "Titus" has been replaced by an actual trumpet to the delight of all.
The new songs are "Late Last Night", "Sweet Dreams" and "The Woman Who Loves You" and they are all great, though I would have kept "Walking Down a Road" as the opening track because "Late Last Night" just doesn't have the weight. "Sweet Dreams" has a perfect pop song hidden somewhere in its 5 minute expanse, but I'm far more forgiving of these indulgences now than when I first listened to this album 15 years ago.
Well, now that I've thoroughly digested this trio of albums, I'm off to listen to Dizrythmia, which is one of my absolute favorites. Then I guess I'll listen to Luton and Frenzy as a set.
What does everyone else think about these earliest of Enz records? Are you glad Phil left and the band transitioned to a new sound or do you wish he would have stuck around to create another equally weird collection of followup tracks?