Saturday, February 28, 2009

I'd Buy Anything By...Nits

My "I'd Buy Anything" spree came to a temporary halt because I'd already mentioned Nits enough in this blog...was there anything else left to say?

Today I was listening to their latest album ("Doing the Dishes") and I realized that after thirty years of releasing albums, their music was still as fresh and wonderful as always...yet for all their fame in the rest of the world they've remained an isolated cult phenomenon in North America. What's up?

I really can't explain it. Many of their songs are 100% radio friendly. Henk Hofstede's Dutch accent is heavy but still totally decipherable. His lyrics tend to be a bit obscure and occasionally absurd, but apparently people don't care about lyrics anyway. So why does each Nits album contain half a dozen beautiful pop songs that only a handful of people on this continent will ever hear?

Since I can't answer that question, let's take a journey through their career. Here they are after releasing their first major-label album performing "Tent," back in their herky-jerky New Wave days. This was before keyboard virtuoso Robert Jan Stips joined and everything is in an almost frightening lockstep, but that was certainly a style they explored between 1979 and 1980.

Bassist/keyboard player Alex Roelofs left shortly afterward and was replaced by Stips, who added a sudden lushness to the arrangements: keyboards, keyboards, and more keyboards during an era when keyboards were kings. Here's 1984's "Mask," which suffers greatly from Jaap Eggermont's "Stars on 45"-style production techniques, but is still a wonderful little song.

In the beginning, both Henk Hofstede and Michel Peters shared the songwriting and singing duties, but eventually Peters left, and some would consider that a good thing; he tended to write haiku-like art-rock and his voice was a tad wheedly. Then along came bassist Joke Geraets and the four members struck a perfect balance of electronic rock, and this was also when Rob Kloet's drumming really came into its own.

Some would consider 1987 their career highpoint. It certainly spawned the only Nits single to make a dent in the North American charts: "In the Dutch Mountains" (turn up the volume for this one).

After Geraets left for medical reasons, the band experimented with orchestration and Philip Glass-style minimalism, then made a stab at the charts with a remarkably conventional album ("dA dA dA") in 1994. They'd also briefly added Martin Bakker and Peter Meuris to the mix. Here's one of the better songs from that period: "Homeless Boy."

Suddenly, Stips took Bakker and Meuris away so he could embark on a solo career, and us poor Nits fans were left wondering: could they continue? Hofstede and Kloet disappeared for a bit and came back with two of their best albums ever, recruiting new members Arwen Linnemann and Laetitia van Krieken for live and (eventually) studio work. I give you the lovely "Three Sisters" from the first of those albums, "Alankomaat."

But the next album -- "Wool" -- was a REAL shock. Jazzy, soulful, organic, and featuring backup vocals by Leona Phillipo, this remains my favourite Nits album yet. You can get the entire "Wool" concert on DVD, but here's a wonderful section: "The Wind, The Rain."

Robert Jan Stips just couldn't stay away. He eventually returned and it would seem that the other musicians became redundant, drifting away until only the core trio of Hofstede, Kloet, and Stips remained.

This hasn't stopped them from doing drastic reinterpretations of songs, however, often only a year or so after the original recordings. Here's a bombastic version of "Eifersucht" featuring full orchestra and Vera Van Der Poel, including a snippet of "Within You Without You."

Here they are today (well, last year) performing a stripped-down, almost "ragtime-folk" version of their latest single "No Man's Land."

If you aren't hooked on Nits by viewing these clips then you'll simply never enjoy them...and that's okay too! I don't understand why but to each their own.

Assuming you ARE hooked, the albums you should buy are "In The Dutch Mountains," their double-live "Urk," and "Wool." Their earlier works are a bit schizophrenic due to the Hofstede/Peters split, but the only albums you should REALLY avoid are their pretentious orchestral suite ("Hjuvi") and the Eggermont-massacred "Adieu Sweet Banhof." For fans only there are plenty of Stips side projects, and if you really love Kloet's drums, pick up his beautiful "Drumset with Dog."

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