It’s only in comparison to its predecessor that the new deluxe reissue of the second Underworld (Mk II, the less said about Mk I the better) album can be said to be in any sense trim and compact. But the numbers don’t lie; possibly because of the standard clause that bands have more time to make a debut (which dubnobasswithmyheadman essentially was) than to follow it up, there’s less material here for the listener to get through than there was there. Although, to be clear, we’re comparing 34 tracks over four discs and four hours and 48 minutes versus 41 tracks over five discs and six hours and 15 minutes, so these are hefty collections any way you slice it. Of course, another way you could refer to them, on the basis of these two efforts, is “definitive”.
Karl Hyde and Rick Smith only did three albums with Darren Emerson (a respected DJ in his own right) as part of the group, this being his second. Next year when Underworld’s new album comes out, they’ll have made more records since his tenure than during it. It can be hard for listeners to sort out who, exactly, is responsible for what in Underworld songs; Hyde’s voice is both distinctive and can be definitively credited, and if you guitar that’s likely him as well. Other than that, the best way to sum up the difference Emerson made is the sort of thing that’s trivially true of any long-running band; the records from this era just feel different. Second Toughest in the Infants is if anything a more subdued, internal album than dubnobasswithmyheadman was, although this is as much a product of structure as anything else.
Whereas the latter album began with the sleekly throbbing “Dark & Long”, Second Toughest in the Infants starts with two long suites that almost make up their own album. “Juanita: Kiteless: To Dream of Love” is as impressive an opener as you could expect, but even as it builds to an inexorable groove, Hyde’s faded, digitized voice ruminating on “your rails, your thin… paper wings, paper wings” gives the whole thing an overcast air. “Banstyle / Sappys Curry”, segueing out of the chattering voice discussing car colours at the end of “Juanita…”, drapes its skittering beat in enough mellow ambience and calmly reflective chat from Hyde that it’s totally natural when it downshifts even further into a looped guitar figure and Hyde intoning “think I found the real stuff”. Both songs are still just as active and danceable as much of dubnobasswithmyheadman but so far it feels as if this album will be even more cerebral than the previous album. But then, in a deft move, the band builds that loop back up into a pulsing, seething climax.
There’s enough other material to discuss here that the album proper can’t really be analyzed in the depth it deserves, but that movement from restrained to frenzied and back again is all over Second Toughest. Sometimes it’s simultaneous, like the match between Hyde’s laconic vocals and the anxious, forward-pushing beat on “Confusion the Watiress”; sometimes it’s in the juxtaposition, like sequencing the brief, dense guitar sketch “Blueski” (this record’s “Tongue,” briefer and better for it) right after the burbling, insistent “Air Towel.” dubnobasswithmyheadman arrived commendably fully-formed, but Second Toughest in the Infants shows a band who’s control, skill and comfort with the studio and their music has only grown. And while it’s only probably the second-most well known song here, it’s in “Pearl’s Girl” on the original album where that skill is best exhibited.
For a song that starts with Karl Hyde calling out what he’d been drinking (Rioja) and listening to (the Reverend Al Green) the night he composed the song, “Pearl’s Girl” winds up having a surprisingly compelling narrative, even if it’s still, determinedly, a little inscrutable. At least inside the head of its narrator the song spans countries, decades, the arts and sciences, and if the ultimate destination is kept opaque, as Hyde insists, “the pieces of the puzzle are waiting”. The quality of Hyde’s lyrics and vocals from this phase of Underworld’s work can be a bittersweet thing to assess; he’s since admitted to a problem with drink and gone sober (interestingly enough, apparently said drinking problem started partly because he was worried about getting hooked on some of the more exotic substances prevalent in the world of dance music, so he stuck with what he knew with some intensity). We’ve since had plenty of examples that his work here is a case of him being able to do what he does so well despite being soused, not because of it, and in any case, the narrator on these songs never sounds sloppy. And of course as compelling as the motifs and phrasings on “Pearl’s Girl” are, they only really work because the production, “amen” break and all, is so rich, detailed, and compelling. Underworld never really made Krautrock, but what they share with the motorik subgenre of that is the way some of their best tracks, “Pearl’s Girl” included, seem able to spiral off into infinity were it not for the limitations of human performance and storage media.
Of course, while “Pearl’s Girl” is represented on the other discs with three fine other versions, it’s eclipsed (in the contents here, in the public imagination, but not in quality) by Underworld’s biggest pop culture moment, courtesy partially of Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting; but the band are going to make you wait to hear the version “Born Slippy (Nuxx)” that you’re most familiar with. The bonus discs are divided into one disc of singles, b-sides, and remixes; one disc of previously unreleased material; and then a full 71 minutes of versions of “Born Slippy (Nuxx)”. Live ones, demos, mixes, and finally as the very last song in this set the full 11:46 version that is (barring some single edits the band didn’t bother to include here, that’s what singles collections are for) the most familiar one.
I’ll admit to some skepticism heading into that last disc; seven versions of the same song, even one as great as this, runs the risk of fatigue. But it’s telling that only the last track on that disc is given the “Born Slippy” appellation (the original, instrumental track of that name, which would be melded with what they were calling “Nuxx” to make the classic version of the song, is included near the end of the second disc). And when the band was mixing, demoing, and playing “Nuxx”, they experimented. Most versions will have at least some of the famous lyrics show up at some point, but the fourth disc actually winds up being one of the most interesting parts of an extremely strong package, a fascinating look into how a band might work with something they know has tremendous potential before finally hitting on the right combination; the other versions range from good to great, but it’s not just familiarity that gives the released version the edge.
As for the other bonus discs, for North American fans the second one runs the risk of being, however high quality its contents, slightly redundant. anyone who picked up the US ‘single’ version of “Pearl’s Girl” has essentially the second disc right there, although pleasingly this issue swaps out the album and single edit versions of the title track for the aforementioned instrumental “Born Slippy” and the satisfying “Deep Pan” remix of same. The US CD picked up five original tracks from the UK CDs (including “Cherry Pie”, an early, more diffuse version of the album’s fierce “Rowla”) plus two excellent remixes of the title track including the beatific, instrumental “Tin There” version. It’s great to see tracks as good as the shimmering “Deep Arch” and the gently fragmented “Oich Oich” get wider exposure, but this is a case where a lot of this material had been rounded up before; which, on the other hand, means that this reissue can replace a few things on you shelf.
As with the previously unreleased material in the dubnobasswithmyheadman reissue, the third disc here is neither so revelatory as to make one wonder why it wasn’t released earlier, nor so quotidian as to feel pointless. The alternate versions of “Confusion the Waitress”, “Rowla”, and “Pearl’s Girl” all make for interesting contrasts (especially when the latter ends with nearly three minutes of the same high-pitched, rapid beat, in what will feel either daring or excruciating depending on your mood), but the best songs here are wholly distinct tracks, whether it’s the loping bass and sardonic vocals of “Bug” or the epic sixteen minutes of “Bloody 1”, going from Hyde’s cut-up vocals to almost a remix of the previous album’s “Spoonman” to a stripped down but satisfying rhythmic workout.
The cut-down two-disc version of the reissue was assembled along fairly schematic lines; the second disc just includes (in order) the original “Born Slippy” instrumental, the five original tracks from disc two, the three alternate versions from disc three, and “Born Slippy (Nuxx)”. It does grab most of the best material from the larger package, although it’s a shame anyone picking it up won’t get to hear a totally new and very good track like “Bug” (which seems like an obvious inclusion). At this point we are talking about a pretty literal embarrassment of riches, though. So far this reissue campaign has done a stellar job of presenting just about all the material you’d want from these essential albums in a form that’s surprisingly easy to listen to despite the prodigious lengths involved. Between the upcoming, similarly structured reissue of the excellent Beaucoup Fish and their first new album in six years, 2016 looks to be an even better year for Underworld fans.
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