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Omsk

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Album Review

The parallels between the careers of XTC and the Nits are remarkable and too numerous to ignore. Both began their recording careers in the late '70s as part of the arty post-punk new wave movement characterized by scratchy guitars, jerky rhythms, cheesy organs, and nerdy frontmen. And both evolved into something infinitely more complex and enduring, despite being gradually whittled down to a core of just two members. That said, whereas XTC underwent a gradual transition from the fractious pop of 1977's White Music to the pastoral psychedelia of 1986's Skylarking, the Nits shed their new wave skin in a relative trice with the 1983 album Omsk. The startling opener, "A Touch of Henry Moore," begins with a mesmerizing, Steve Reich-like barrage of marimbas and (synthesized) hammered metal over which Henk Hofstede ponders the physical hard labor that goes into creating a thing of beauty. One of the most stunningly original pieces in the Nits' repertoire, it's still a stage favorite. At the time, the Nits also boasted a second singer/songwriter in the form of Michiel Peters, who contributes three songs to Omsk. He was no Colin Moulding, however, and his first song on the album provides a rare and unwelcome reminder of the kind of music the public was gorging on in 1983. "Unpleasant Surprise" is just that, a horrible exercise in Spandau Duran, all brash synths and big drums, while "The Cold Eye" is a contrived exercise in atmospherics let down by Peters' thin, reedy voice. Only the surprisingly rootsy "Spirits Awake," with its spooky Wicker Man vibe, is a worthy addition to the album, and it was probably a blessing all round when Peters left the band within two years. Keyboard player Robert Jan Stips — who must take a lot of the credit for the album's lush textures — also contributes a couple of tracks to Omsk, most notably the irresistibly breezy instrumental "Walter and Conny," which pushes some of the same buttons as Zappa's "Peaches en Regalia." But the Nits were already essentially Hofstede's band, and Omsk contains one of his most enduring songs in the form of "Nescio." With its serried ranks of frenziedly strummed mandolins, pizzicato strings, and cascading piano, "Nescio" finds Hofstede milking the song's larger than life Latin emotions to stirring effect — though disconcertingly the title refers to the nom de plume of an obscure Dutch writer. At the other extreme is the delicate "Jardin d'Hiver." This attempt to capture the sparkling stillness of a winter's day is another of Hofstede's most bewitching songs. Traceries of vibraphones, piano, and strings intertwine with a series of short vocal lines to suggest the chiming of bells. Though it's not without its moments of clumsiness, Omsk contains enough examples of what would prove to be the Nits' mature style to make it worthy of investigation. [The CD reissue contains three tracks not included on the original release.]

Biography

Formed: 1974 in Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Genre: Pop

Years Active: '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s

There seems little doubt that were they not so geographically challenged, the Nits would be one of the most widely respected bands in the world today -- at least on a par with smart-as-a-whip types like XTC and Prefab Sprout. Certainly few can match their sheer creative stamina: how many other bands can claim to be still reinventing themselves after 30 years and nearly 20 albums? But the Nits come from Holland. And furthermore, the occasional tour of the U.S. and Canada aside, they quickly made it...
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Omsk, Nits
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