New Zealand’s Split Enz began their recording career in pleasantly uncommercial fashion, writing gently eccentric tunes that echoed the softer side of Foxtrot-era Genesis. A compilation of demos, Mushroom’s The Beginning of the Enz chronicles those earliest days and finds Tim Finn’s bittersweet singing style starting to work its magic.
For Mental Notes — their first proper album — the Enz took shape as a sprawling seven-piece, including spoons player Noel Crombie. They had grown overtly weird and flamboyant, with many tunes resembling little, distorted symphonies. The effects don’t always work, simply because flakiness carried past a certain point can’t be taken seriously on any level. The Genesis parallel holds here as well.
By the time Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera produced the second Mental Notes, the Enz were ready for the world beyond. Bizarre carnival costumes and distorted upsweep hairdos served as colorful attention-grabbers. Tim Finn’s wistful voice adds a sweet patina to disoriented and lyrically offbeat outings like “Stranger Than Fiction” and the morbid “The Woman Who Loves You.”
Dizrythmia made a distinct lurch towards the mainstream, thanks primarily to the departure of co-leader/guitarist Phil Judd, replaced by Tim’s brother Neil. With Tim in full command, the melodically intricate material went from coldly quirky to genuinely appealing, even cute. Highlights: the dizzy “Bold as Brass” and “Crosswords,” at once bristling and ornate.
The second LP to be called Beginning of the Enz is a distillation of tracks from Chrysalis’ Mental Notes and Dizrythmia.
Financial woes subsequently forced the band to work on a diminished budget. With Neil Finn contributing songs and vocals as well as guitar, the Enz cut Frenzy, poppier still and less elusive than before. It’s hampered by cheap sound, but “I See Red” spins a delightfully tuneful whirlwind, and “Mind Over Matter” re-creates the warmly majestic quality of the best of Dizrythmia. The US/UK version of the LP differs from Mushroom’s by half.
The Enz staged a full assault on America with True Colours. They had become a cuddly pop band with sweet vocals, crackerjack melodies and hardly any strangeness. Fortunately, the material is genuinely first-rate, including the bouncily contagious “I Got You” and “I Hope I Never,” a plainly melodramatic number suitable for Barbra Streisand. (As a marketing ploy, the LP was pressed on laser-etched plastic and packaged in variously colored covers.)
Although Waiata (issued in Australia under the Aborigine title Corroboree) has gorgeously haunting tracks like “Iris” and “History Never Repeats,” as well as adorable ones like “Clumsy,” there’s a hint of blandness around the edges. The Enz show no desire to surprise here, and seem on the verge of becoming a hipper Bee Gees.
Happily, Time and Tide restores the passion, adding a new sense of wonder to the palatable melodies. “Dirty Creature” (of habit), “Hello Sandy Allen” and “Make Sense of It” all merit inclusion in the Enz hall of fame, blending a gentle beauty with vaguely unsettling otherworldliness.
Conflicting Emotions is effectively the band’s swansong, and it’s hard to imagine a grander exit. Keeping the ethereal melodies intact, the Enz finally build up the physical side of the music to equal strength. The playing is tough and direct like never before; “Bullet Brain and Cactus Head,” “I Wake Up Every Night” and others drive hard without obscuring the wholesome moralism of the lyrics. The message? Try to lead a good life. Who could quarrel with that?
The final Enz studio LP, See Ya Round is an unusually mild affair, hard to remember once it’s over. However, it’s of historical note as Neil Finn’s warmup for his massive success with Crowded House. Big bro’ Tim has flown the coop, leaving Neil in charge, with a golden opportunity to make his own mistakes and get the art affectations out of his system once and for all. Which he apparently did: compare the pale version of “I Walk Away” here with the full-bodied reading on the first Crowded House LP.
The Living Enz is a decent two-disc live set from a band not widely known for its stage performances. History Never Repeats, a lovingly assembled posthumous compilation, has swell liner notes by Cary Darling and Tim Finn and contains such Enz necessities as “I See Red,” “History Never Repeats,” “I Got You” and “I Hope I Never.” Split Enz reunited briefly in 1989 and played an old-time’s-sake show in New Zealand.