Saturday, June 25, 2016

Classic Album Review: Split Enz - Mental Notes (1975)

Mental Notes* was the 1975 debut album for the eventual flag-bearers of the Kiwi “new wave” scene, Split Enz. The then seven-piece band had been together for a couple of years by the time of its release, initially touring as “Split Ends”, while cultivating a reputation as a zany theatrical group of avant-garde pop weirdos. Suffice to say they were most popular on the university circuit at the time.

A decade or so ago, Mental Notes topped a local music magazine (Rip It Up) poll to select the best New Zealand album of all-time. Now polls are polls are polls and you’d be foolish to place too much emphasis on their results but I really can’t believe this album rated higher than dozens of others more deserving of such an honour – at least two of which are subsequent Split Enz releases (Frenzy and True Colours).

Yes, Mental Notes is hugely significant as the debut album of one of NZ’s finest bands, but purely as a listening experience on its own, which is how the album should be judged, surely, I really can’t see what all the fuss was/is about. It just makes me feel like I’m the dumb kid at the back of the class and the only one who doesn’t get the joke. It feels like it’s a little bit too clever for me (or for its own good).

Part of the problem I have is that it’s generally all over the place; it integrates too many styles, it contains too much superficial so-called progressive rock, it has far too many pretentious arty moments, and the entire album is in danger of falling apart whenever the vocals kick-in on any given track. Vocalists Tim Finn and Phil Judd rarely adopt a conventional singing voice and you almost feel as though each singer is attempting to disguise shortcomings by adopting that mock theatrical tone. Sorry, but overwrought shrilling just ain’t my bag (baby).

Perhaps for some, the album’s variety is the very source of its appeal, and the unique sound part of its charm, but it certainly doesn’t work for me. Like I say, I just don’t get it.

Possible highlights (of the ten tracks) – I’m not sure there are too many to choose from; the lead single ‘Maybe’ is catchy enough I suppose. Then again …. maybe not (boom!). The live favourite ‘Stranger Than Fiction’ has a certain appeal, even if I’m not entirely sure what, and of course ‘Titus’ is often quoted as one of the band’s best early moments (but not by me).

I’m looking for positives, but in truth I’m afraid I can only rate it for its historical importance, with perhaps a half mark for genuine originality. Oh, and Phil Judd’s cover art is certainly pretty special in a very DIY kind of way.

Split Enz would, over the course of the following decade, go on to forge a unique place for itself in the annals of NZ music with some of the best pop music ever made. However, much of that was produced after the teenage Neil Finn joined the band in 1977, his first serious contribution coming on 1979’s Frenzy album. The band did enjoy a few minor local hits before that portentous development – most notably the likes of ‘Late Last Night’, ‘My Mistake’, and ‘Bold As Brass’ – but I really wouldn’t recommend the early Split Enz work or Mental Notes as a reliable guide or starting point for anyone new to the band.

* The band’s second album, aptly titled Second Thoughts (1976), is also known as Mental Notes in the UK and the US (and possibly elsewhere), but beware, this is an entirely different album.

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