A kind of Australian Rockpile with a case of the vaudeville giggles, Sydney’s Mental as Anything first surfaced Down Under in 1978 with an EP containing a sly, skiffle-like drinking song called “The Nips Are Getting Bigger” (featured on Get Wet, Mental as Anything — the equivalent UK release — and the US debut If You Leave Me) which accurately summarizes their pub-rock earthiness and randy humor. Get Wet is certainly a good-natured introduction to a band unafraid to write a love song to a foreign country based on travel ads (“Egypt”) or pitch a cheesy instrumental bit with Sam the Sham organ as a “Possible Theme for a Future TV Drama Series.”
Combining a song from Get Wet and the best of the Australian-only Cats and Dogs, the Anglo-American compilation If You Leave Me, Can I Come Too? is more of the same — the band’s (un)usual mix of cheek and underlying lyrical sincerity captured in the poignant “Mr. Normal” drawl of singer/guitarist Martin Plaza. The album also features a track produced by Elvis Costello (“I Didn’t Mean to Be Mean”) in which the rest of the band — guitarist Reg Mombassa, organist Greedy Smith, bassist Peter O’Doherty and drummer Wayne Delisle — work up a good Attractions-like head of steam.
Creatures of Leisure reveals an overwhelmingly downcast band, singing wistful lyrics about romantic discord (“Bitter to Swallow,” “Float Away”) and a general lack of gumption (“Nothing’s Going Right Today,” “Spirit Got Lost”). Even the music is depressed, playing in the same countryish style with barely a trace of enthusiasm. These boys are down, and can’t help but lay their burden down in the grooves. Without wallowing in self-pity or indulging in any overt declarations of misery, Creatures of Leisure is an enormously sad record.
A much better frame of mind prevails on Fundamental. Songs like “I Just Wanna Be Happy” and “Live It Up” offer optimistic lyrics about getting past hard times and bad feelings. Other subjects temper that attitude: in “Hold On,” O’Doherty admits a case of the guilts about a ladyfriend, while Plaza marvels about public transportation in “Bus Ride.” As produced by Richard Gottehrer, the Mentals’ music has hit a certain stride that discourages zaniness (a shame), but their sound — still an Australian answer to Nick Lowe — is never less than bouncily appealing.
The emotional barometer holds steady on Mouth to Mouth, another Gottehrer production. Employing plain and pleasant music that could use a bit of a recharge, Plaza delivers harsh words to an ex in “Don’t Tell Me Now” and “Thinking Out Loud”; Smith welcomes an old friend in “My Door Is Always Open to You” and offers a hopeful suggestion (in the very Nick Lowe-ish “Let’s Go to Paradise”). O’Doherty expresses his pleasure about an ongoing relationship in “I’m Glad.” There isn’t an unlikable moment anywhere on the record, but the Mentals seem in danger of drifting into musical senility unless they find some collective personality and start showing a little more enthusiasm.
Some people just don’t heed the warning signs of encroaching blandness. Cyclone Raymond is completely boring, a collection of tepid love songs that couldn’t possibly please anyone other than a soft-rock radio programmer anxious to fill air time with anything inoffensively presentable. O’Doherty’s chugging “Baby You’re Wild” and the Everlyesque “Love Comes Running” show faint glimmers of life (if not wit), something which can’t even be said of a rote Chuck Berry exercise reclaimed from the Young Einstein soundtrack.
Using a lot of modern-sounding electronic keyboards and saxophone in addition to guitars, Plaza’s solo album has adequate energy, a few dance rhythms and a shortage of substantial, memorable material. And covering “Concrete and Clay” (following some sort of titular theme, two of Plaza Suite‘s originals are entitled “Bats and Balls” and “Chalk and Cheese”) in synth strings does nothing to improve a bad situation.