The obvious derivativeness on the Nits’ early albums could have been written off as cut-rate local filtration/reassembly of the real thing from Britain and America (Beatles, Talking Heads, etc.). In retrospect, however, those records can be seen as learning experiences of a world-class band now deserving international attention.
Evidently a thousand or so copies of an LP entitled The Nits were pressed prior to their CBS signing, an achievement apparently best forgotten. That’s only marginally less true of their first three CBS outings. Comparisons to tongue-in-cheek pop synthesists like 10cc and fellow Dutchmen Gruppo Sportivo immediately come to mind, but leave the Nits on the short end of the stick — too cute, not clever enough by half and too sterile, especially on Tent. Arty touches provide welcome contrasts here and there on New Flat, and a melody or two does catch the ear. Work attempts to up the Serious Artistic Expression ante, but the music rarely can carry the lyrical weight. Still, at points on both New Flat and Work, Hans Hofstede reveals a growing aptitude for creating little emotional postcards.
Omsk and Kilo show the Nits beginning to find their voices; it must be at least partly attributed to the arrival of Robert Jan Stips. Previously known for his work with Golden Earring and for producing Gruppo Sportivo albums, the ex-Supersister keyboardist oversaw part of Tent and all of New Flat. His own LP is a curious blend of pop-rock and jazz syncopations, in a unique style that starts out intriguing but turns irritating. All the same, he does bolster the Nits’ brighter, poppier side and shades the darker, moodier aspect most often explored by Hofstede. On Omsk and Kilo, Hofstede unveils a mild resemblance to Elvis Costello (but dreamier, more vulnerable, less venomous); Stips’ dominant keyboards make for settings that are affecting, even haunting.
Adieu, Sweet Bahnhof reflects the group’s odd international sensibility. None of the Nits’ lyrics have ever been in Dutch; a song on the LP which refers to Holland is sung half in English, half in Turkish. Is there some national inferiority complex at work here? In any case, the record is more musically confident and aggressive, yet less affecting, than its immediate predecessors. There are still clumsy phrasings and syntactical mistakes (in songs by Stips and Michiel Peters, not Hofstede), which would be more easily forgiven/ignored if the melodies were stronger. This album seems to be a move sideways, a retrenchment, a sort of public ironing out of the kinks, though the really good tracks (like those featuring Hofstede’s Lennonish Costelloisms) do make it a respectable opus.
Henk is another story altogether. Firstly, there’s the mystery of the title (weirder since Hofstede changed his name from Hans to Henk after the Work LP). Peters is gone. Hofstede now writes all the lyrics, while he, Stips and agile drummer Rob Kloet share equal credit for the music. Other than a spot of banjo (!) and one track’s worth of guitar, there are no fretted instruments to be heard — it’s all voices, keyboards and drums. And it’s great — oddball pop-rock of the first order. The imaginative range of electronic sounds and textures can be breathtaking, as on “Cabins” and “Under a Canoe.” The melodies are attractive. The words are often abstract but always evocative. The Nits now sound like…the Nits. (The Henk CD also contains Kilo.)
In the Dutch Mountains — the title track inspired by Cees Nooteboom’s acclaimed quasi-fantasy novel — is also impressive. The Nits again sound like the Nits, but substantially different Nits. Intended to resemble a live show, it was recorded “in their own rehearsal room, an old gym in Amsterdam…straight to two-track digital tape with no dubbing or mixing after the actual recording.” New bassist Joke Geraets plays only a stand-up acoustic; Hofstede’s back to playing guitar. The occasional guests are three female backing vocalists and a steel guitar player. Hofstede’s lyrical approach is — as on Henk — offbeat, but also consistently personal (even at one point confessional). Surreal juxtapositions of prosaic imagery suggest travels through his dreams. The cleverly contrapuntal music and rhythms use a tonal/timbral palette that is more subdued (yet equally effective in its way) than Henk. And this is nearly a live album! Brilliant.
The Hat mini-album (six tracks, 25 minutes) refines the earlier “emotional postcard” approach, with the theme of loneliness — romantic, spiritual, physical — getting a real workout. It’s quite enjoyable, the unified sound not unlike Omsk or Kilo, yet sonically lighter and simpler.
Soon after, the Nits recorded a double live album, Urk. The selection of 29 songs (over two hours) samples every record from Work on, with Dutch Mountains getting the most emphasis, followed by Henk, Omsk and Hat; a strong, well-blended assortment. Carps: While several songs from weaker records seem more impressive than before, some better numbers are a little less so. In addition, a couple of theatrical songs geared for the stage lose something without the visual component. Still, it’s an enjoyable overview as delectable as the original albums.
Geraets had departed by Giant Normal Dwarf, and the LP is all Stips’ keyboards, Kloets’ drums and Hofstede’s voice(s). Even more explicitly than Dutch Mountains, the record concentrates on dreams, fantasies and childlike visions. With less energy and more reserve, it’s not as immediately imposing as Dutch Mountains or Henk, but is still an attractive, wistful, sometimes disturbing album, engagingly capturing the internal logic of dreams and translating complex emotional states into songs. And it’s darned pretty, too!