|CD Review - Split Enz - "The Rootin' Tootin' Luton Tapes"
||[Mar. 16th, 2008|10:18 am]
There's been a bit of a trend lately of some of the more... mature... pop groups around the place getting back together and recording another album for old time's sake. The results have varied from the spectacular (Terminals), to the very good (Cold Chisel), to the good enough while not being brilliant (Verlaines), to the somewhat lacklustre (Crowded House). There's always the worry that in the intervening decade or so, the band members may have lost that collective spark of creativity that makes them more than just a few people playing music together.
With The Rootin' Tootin' Luton Tapes, Split Enz have managed to avoid that problem entirely: the 15 songs on this album were all recorded in 1978, but due to record company dithering around were never released: some songs later appeared on single B-sides, rarities albums, live albums or CD "bonus tracks", but the majority haven't been heard outside of bootlegs and live shows.
Overall the album holds together well. Most of the songs have been re-mixed and made sound more professional (the original Luton Tapes included about 30 songs, recorded in three days in an eight-track studio; this may have sounded enough for the 1980s, but in the 1970s recordings were expected to sound a bit more high-tech). The only one of these songs that I'm particularly familiar with the original recording of - "Holy Smoke", which later ended up as the B-side of the "History Never Repeats" single - sounds a bit better but not much different otherwise.
"Miss Haps" is a good enough opening song; possibly a bit complicated (although, if anyone isn't willing to give something complicated a few listens to let it seep into their consciousness, 1970s Split Enz isn't going to be their thing anyway). "Home Comforts" is nothing special and "Animal Lover" is an interesting curiosity (a rare Eddie Rayner lyric) although it could perhaps have done with some polishing (the line "A degree in biology..." is sung as if Tim was expecting a few more syllables which failed to materialise...)
"Carried Away" is probably the best of Neil Finn's early songs, and one in which he seems to have been heavily influenced by the band's earlier, more idiosyncratic material. "Semi Detached" still sounds excellent; but it would be hard to mess up a song that good (it actually ended up on their best "greatest hits" collection - the two-CD "Spellbound" set - despite only ever having been the B-side of an Australia-only single, which bombed spectacularly).
Following "Holy Smoke" is "Message Boy": Tim Finn writes `seventies rock-and-roll. It works far better than it has any right to. "Hypnotised" is weird: it sounds like they're trying for a languid Hawai'ian or generic Island sound, but it comes a bit like what Hello Sailor tried to do with "Lying in the Sand" (and had even less success at doing).
"Late in Rome" is a very old Neil Finn song - I think he originally wrote it for the band he was playing in before he joined Split Enz in the first place - and sounds as tired, cynical and world-weary as only a teenager can sound. Although in this version he doesn't sing it with anything like the conviction with which he sang it on the version which ended up on Rear Enz.
"Straight Talk" is OK but fairly disposable. "Hollow Victory" is excellent: a nice, quiet guitar tune with some of Tim's most warped lyrics ever. "Evelyn" and "Best Friend" are a couple of Neil's songs (the latter co-written with Tim): good while being nothing really special. "Creature Comforts" is a nice, quiet little song that's over far too soon.
"Remember When" is a fine end to this album. The production sounds distinctly iffy - out of tune piano, lots of background noises - but it only serves to confirm the spirit of the song: that of a bunch of New Zealanders (and friends) stuck over in Britain feeling particularly homesick and trying to sing about it while not actually singing about it.
There's also a fan-club only two-CD version of the album floating around. Which is the one I bought. Let's just say that joining the fan club to get the two-CD version is definitely worth it. Of the songs on the second disk, two thirds eventually ended up, re-recorded, on the Frenzy album of 1979, which infamously suffered from a terrible production job. Most of these songs sound better than the "Frenzy" versions (although I doubt any recording budget could save "Betty" from being over-long and uninteresting).
An early version of "Next Exit" also appears here. It may be a remix of the version which appears on More Hits and Myths!, but it's lost a bit of the spark the original recording of the song had. It's still head and shoulders above the insipid 1982 single recording, though.
"So This Is Love" and "I'm So Up" are a couple of Phil Judd songs, written before he quit the band for the last time; the former being so well-known (despite never having been released) that there were already at least two cover versions of the song released by the time this version finally surfaced. And "Livin' It Up" is a particularly odd excursion into punk rock, proving, if nothing else, that the band in their prime were capable of performing practically any style of popular music ever invented.
In short: This album isn't just for completists and collectors. It's a fine album in itself with some excellent songs. Anyone who likes Dizrythmia or Frenzy should give it a listen. (Anyone not familiar with Split Enz' music would be better off getting the "Spellbound" greatest hits set first, to familiarise themselves with the band; but if they're impressed by songs like "I See Red" or "Semi Detached" then this would be a definite Album To Find Later On.)