Understated Classics #11: Second Toughest In The Infants by Underworld
Your rails, your fins, your thin paper wings
Second Toughest in the Infants (STITI) is the second album by Underworld, released in 1995. This was just ahead of the mania caused by the .NUXX version of Born Slippy appearing on the Trainspotting soundtrack a little later. Born Slippy itself, the blippy techno confection released between their début Dubnobasswithmyheadman and this album. STITI then is very much the calm before the storm and features a band (in the truest sense, which is unusual among electronic acts) in full flow. The sure hands are apparent from the off with the all-in-one trifecta of Juanita, Kiteless and To Dream of Love: a huge slab of a track that propels, mashes and then glides over various tempos in its sixteen minute run.
Juanita is the vocal piece with an epitome of Karl Hyde’s disconnected cut-up lyrics somehow teasing something meaningful out of a mish mash of found phrases: “your rails, your fins, you thin paper wings / in the wind, dangling” - it’s all in the delivery. Meanwhile, some guitar riffs almost right off Dirty Epic add light and shade. Kiteless arrives about six minutes, the track performing an abrupt change in gear to something more rhythmic. The guitars come back after a bit and give everything a bit of unity before it goes beat berserk at about eight minutes. Underworld are strange that even at this beat driven peak of Kiteless there is still a connection back to the vocals and the guitars - this is what I meant about a true band performance, each of the elements complement each other even when one of them is foregrounded.
To Dream of Love then arrives as the track collapses into piano trills and the beats begin to fade down. The vocals come back with a more elegiac tone “A bird is singing on the other side of this glass” and “listening to the barbed wire hanging”. The beats build back and then recede again, a processed voice begins to recite colours one after the other. “And red / and grey / and red / and green…”, as these voices layer over one another and echo each other the track fades away. It’s strange and emotional and quite quite brilliant. One of my favourite long tracks of all time.
I think I found the real stuff
The album then lurches into another long track consisting of parts mixed together, just two this time: the drum’n’bass tinged “Banstyle” (does anyone have the Alex Reece mix of this? I need it!) and the slow burning “Sappy’s Curry”. Amalgamated they run to fifteen minutes and as with the opening three tracks, these two evolve and develop in fascinating ways over their run time.
I think Banstyle was the first track that really brought it home to me that drum’n’bass could be mellow. In a way it is not really drum’n’bass at all, by about four minutes in the synth pads are totally dominating the track’s construction and the beats are merely skittering away in the background. The lyrics are again impressionistic but mention “walking up the aisle” and “something underneath your skin”, it always makes me think of staring out the window on a rainy summer’s day and I have certainly been doing enough of that lately.
About six minutes in a bass guitar emerges as those skittering beats fade away, the riff builds and twists as slow-paced beats begin to each around the mix. This is the point where the track becomes Sappy’s Curry: the name comes from a greyhound, just like Born Slippy and Pearl’s Girl. At this point the track has transitioned from d’n’b into something that we would have called electronic music back then but what we might call rock music now that Radiohead have paved the way for beats and textures to become part of that genre. Whatever it is, it is a beautiful track and like Banstyle it is elegiac and mysterious. I really love the lyrics to this one even though they don’t make much sense as a whole, individual snatched phrases make complete sense like when you spot a perfect shape in a passing cloud. My favourite is “White car / Blue Mercedes / Happy Shopper / Bouncing Ball”. Somehow, the music manages to completely complement the lyrics, it too being a patchwork of rhythms and fragments: viz the wonderful oscillations and synths at around fourteen minutes - it all swirls, rises and falls. Really beautiful.
Next up, just three tracks and thirty-two minutes into the album is Confusion the Waitress, which is probably my favourite Underworld track ever. It has a really strident beat and this little riff that repeats over the top. The lyrics make a little more sense, they are ostensibly about the titular waitress quoted in a list of lines beginning “She said…”: “She said “loophole how are you? once again the superstar” / She said “He loves you but can you name me his children?”…”. Meanwhile the backing is all space, shadows and echoes that are cast over the mysterious lyrics. The story told seems to involve sex, lust and crime, but who knows? That’s the beauty of it.
As Confusion… burbles down to a close, an instrumental called Rowla hums to life and quickly moves into gear, evolving over its six and half minutes into a track that is similar in construction to the Kiteless section of the opening movement. There is also a B-side called Cherry Pie that is similar (it’s slower I think). Rowla really gets going about two minutes in with a sawtooth synth buzzing around and dominating the beats, there are some really nice effects that build up at the peripheral of the mix and makes for a really good listen on headphones.
You are waiting for a bus
Next up is Pearl’s Girl, which was the single and is not dissimilar from Born Slippy.NUXX: it has the frenetic beats and the megaphone vocal. What it lacks though is a refrain as wonderous and appealing as “Shouting lager lager lager”, preferring to waffle on about “Old man Einstein on top of his housewife” instead. It is a very nice track that builds nicely over its nine and a half minutes and the middle four and a half work well as a single. Talking of the single, there is an absolutely blistering remix by the band subtitled Carp dreams (koi)… that pushes out the run time by another minute and completely deconstructs the track into its component parts, dispensing with most of the vocal and that looming apocalyptic two minutes of intro. It is a wonderful track that needs to be hunted down if you like the original.
As Pearl’s Girl drifts down to earth on majestic synth pads and some more spidery drum and bass beats, Air Towel bounces into view: a track that is perhaps the other candidate for being a single. It has perhaps the most upbeat and danceable beat of the entire album, it is like prozac in happy plastic dayglo beat driven form. There are lyrics too that emerge after about two and half-minute to add a bit of sinister shade. Once again they are impressionistic non-sequiturs, including the “happy shopper bouncing ball” line once more. It is probably the best song to feature the line “You are waiting for a bus”. After that comes a little instrumental Blueski that is just under three minutes long. Some of the songs on STITI have introductions that are longer than this entire track and that is how it feels, like the introduction for a track that does not come.
The naming of killer boy
What arrives instead is Stagger, a wonderful and sinister close to the album. It is the clearest and most performed “song” on the whole album. Like Sappy’s Curry and the opening section of To Dream of Love, the music behind is a subtle casting of shadows that echo the dark spaces within the lyrics. As throughout, there is a perfect match of the vocal performance with the soundscape around it: that of a strange, grey and broken London in which strange shadows move expressing love and sadness in the rain.
Second Toughest In The Infants is a masterpiece that builds and climbs and reveals itself slowly over multiple listens. It is probably one of the most important electronic albums of the nineties. While it belongs to the same time period as Born Slippy and some of the tricks employed here would be revisited in a slicker fashion on the next album Beaucoup Fish (viz Cups and Jumbo), it remains a unique and vital part of their back catalogue. I cannot recommend it highly enough.