29 Oct

“What is this shit?” Greil Marcus’ famous reaction to Bob Dylan’s “Self Portrait” is a good indicator whether a new album has the potential for repeated listening pleasure. Especially when it’s prompted by a new Nits album.

Dutch combo The Nits – known around here as the best band in the world, no less – got together in 1974 and currently consist of founding members Henk Hofstede (vocals, guitar) and Rob Kloet (percussion, vocals), together with Robert Jan Stips (keyboards, vocals) who joined in 1981 and had previously played with Supersister and Golden Earring.

“What is this – ting?!” was the question asked when their 1992 album “TING” was released. Following a Europe-wide top ten hit, a successful theatre tour and a lush psychedelic album, here the band was stripped down to just piano, voice and percussion (including the singing stones of Swiss artist Fritz Hauser), performing chamber music-like snapshots with minimalistic lyrics about empty landscapes, cars (and cars) and melancholia. Plus a bopping little pop song about Joseph Cornell. Of course.

“Now what is this!!” would be the initial reaction to later albums like “Wool” from 2000 (a stunning collection of meticulously arranged songs, performed with brass and a string section: here the Nits sound like the backing band that Leonard Cohen never had…) or “Les Nuits” from 2005 (an album with a song suite about a violent attack and its implications on the neighborhood and the folks living there), which wouldn’t sound out of place with the likes of Radiohead, John Grant or Wilco.

“Angst! What is it?” And now here’s their 21st studio album, called “Angst“. After several records where they – more or less – played it straight, the Nits again slim down: the set-up this time is voice + keyboards + percussion, augmented here and there with a bit of dulcimer and strings. What we get isn’t “Ting”-like minimalism, but an adventurous, rich sound of the “shirt is waving in the meadow” variety, more often than not resembling the soundtrack to a David Lynch movie about Chopin. Parts of the album were apparently inspired by the memories of Henk’s mother about the dark times of the German occupation in the Netherlands during WW2, and the music certainly adds to the pointillistic, often surreal lyrics with hazily emerging counter-melodies, sudden twists and turns, and surprising arrangement ideas, all adding up to a weirdly compelling audio film. And it wouldn’t be the Nits without a treasure trove of harmonies, middle-eights and chord changes to make any Beatles fan weep with delight.

This record – whether on CD or as an old-fashioned LP – is (as usual with this band) beautifully packaged, and you shouldn’t listen to it on your telephone: find your coat, grab your hat, go to a record store (or a Nits concert), buy it and take it home – where it belongs.

Album of the year (sorry, Steven).

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