Underworld :: Second Toughest In The Infants – Remaster (Universal)

So is the super-deluxe set just for fans? Well, perhaps not. Again, the price is going to be a barrier to entry for some, but even if you’re just an Underworld album owner there’s never been an easier or better sounding way to quickly extend your collection with some truly fantastic material. Roll on the next super-deluxe installment from Underworld!

Underworld :: Second Toughest In The Infants - Reissue (Universal)

The Album :: Remastered

Underworld‘s fourth album Second Toughest In The Infants will perhaps always be looked upon as their finest hour, and certainly saw them at the peak of their commercial success. With no promotional singles to precede its release, it landed on the public’s doorstep with absolutely no indication of what to expect. This isn’t as surprising is hindsight now that we know just how much of an “album” outfit Underworld are, not so much in terms of “concept” but certainly of execution, flow and timing.

Whether you think Second Toughest In The Infants was in need of the remaster and deluxe reissue treatment or not, these are at least celebrating the anniversaries of Underworld’s not inconsiderable back catalog. It’s a particularly fashionable trend right now, and by this point the superlative new 2014 edition of Dubnobasswithmyheadman has at least ably proven that the remastering is in safe hands.

The original CD release not only has some of the lowest volume levels of any album of it’s time that I can remember, but is really showing its age in terms of tonal range and balance, clearly lacking in full-sounding bass and pin-sharp top end. Thankfully this new remaster adds range and clarity, bringing the work back to life for the 21st century and doesn’t succumb to the recent plague of brick-walling and excessive level boosting. It sounds refreshingly clean, well balanced and beautifully nuanced, and that old cliche of being able to hear things in mix that you previously didn’t certainly applies too.

Underworld have always been in their element when producing epic tracks with running times in excess of ten minutes, and the fifteen minute opening masterwork of the awkwardly titled “Juanita : Kiteless : To Dream Of Love,” is no exception, “…three songs jammed together into a relentless forward drive” as the liner notes put it. Not that you really notice this, the whole thing is so seamless.

Like Speedy J’s Ginger, Underworld somehow manage to transform what is effectively a study in monotone into a breathless, staggering and propulsive force, and it has never sounded better, the slightly watery and tinny original master beefed up substantially here. They layer their icing sugar hi-hats over Hyde’s droning vocal monotone: “Your rails, your thin, your thin paper wings,” then “Kiteless” focuses on the percussion and momentum until the song proper, “To Dream Of Love'” melts the monotone sheen.

This is immediately followed by another composite track in “Banstyle/Sappy’s Curry,” a blend of loungey synths and a hefty application of the jungle and drum-and-bass style that was taking the pirate radio airwaves by storm covered in the usual soft noise. It’s a perfectly balanced blend of external influences tempered by their unique sound that resolutely refuses to date, even managing to weave in some acoustic instruments without jarring.

Karl Hyde continues to finesse his lyrical style here, combining Oblique Strategies and beat-poet delivery with a synthesized treatment on the syncopate burble in “Confusion The Waitress,” while on “Pearls Girl”—a criminally underrated track, the only single actually lifted from the album and its hyperactive, pumping heart—he’s at his absolute finest: “Rioja Rioja reverend, Al Green, deep blue, Morocco, the water on stone, the water on concrete, the water on sand, the water on fire, smoke, the wind…”.

But you probably know all of this already. The main attraction of this reissue is the wealth of rare, previously unreleased or b-side material from that era.

Super-Deluxe :: Bonus material

As with the Dubnobasswithmyheadman reissue, Second Toughest In The Infants comes in a new 2xCD edition with the majority of the most well-known b-side material included plus a few previously unreleased tracks, and the fan-pleasing, four disc super-deluxe edition examined here. Even though that first reissue established a template of only including the band-mixed or remixed material that sticks here, there are some weird omissions. No ‘Spoon Deep’ or twenty-minute “Dark & Long (215 Miles)” on the former, and no “Born Slippy .TELEMATIC” or “Pearls Girl (Carp Dreams… Koi)” on the latter. Who knows why? Space possibly, but it means that the sets fall just short of being a complete collection of those band-only works.

Want to know just how much difference some relatively minor tweaks in the mixing stage can make or break a track? Look no further than the dreadful “Pearls Girl (Version 2)” that essentially contains all of the elements of the finished studio version, but sinks it under waves of reverb, over-bright hi-hats and a clunky, bleep-cursed final half.

Only the super-deluxe edition includes the legendary “Pearls Girl (Tin There)” that—in true Underworld style—bears almost no similarity to the original whatsoever. And yet, whether most people realize it or not, it’s probably the best known and played version, featuring as it does on the soundtrack to the wildly addictive and hugely successful futuristic console racer, Wipeout 2097. It’s in heady company on that soundtrack but is easily one of the finest and most adrenaline pumping moments.

Underworld :: Second Toughest In The Infants - Remaster (Universal)

Both the two-disc and super-deluxe editions include all the tracks to appear across the two-disc “Pearls Girl” single, and while they’re nowhere near as well-developed as the album material, they’re arguably every bit as essential. Sure, “Cherry Pie” is effectively a glittering and hallucinogenic remix of “Rowla” but it’s the preferred version for many I’m sure. Then there’s the super-soft bass and smooth rhythms of the Wipeout 2097-sampling “Oich Oich” hinting at the direction they’d take with Beaucoup Fish and the arpeggiated, Underworld uber-builder “Deep Arch.”

The super deluxe’s third disc is where the set truly enters fan territory, exclusively comprised of previously unreleased material, the finest moment of which is surely the perfectly-paced sixteen minute opus “Bloody 1,” fusing cut-up vocal elements a-la “Spikee” with the velveteen rhythms and percussion of Second Toughest In The Infants. It’s beautifully arranged, traversing and crooked path towards two wonderfully timed false-endings. It would be amazing that this was never a b-side if there had been any actual singles for it to be a b-side to.

“Rowla A1806” is another example of the glut of amazing material Underworld stockpiled while developing tracks and features a hypnotic synthesized vocal that’s wholly absent from the released mix. There’s also the previously unreleased “Bing Here” and “Techno Thang” that neatly illustrate how tracks evolved or were hybridised, in this case from initial experiments with the original released version of “Pearls Girl” into “Tin There.”

It’s Underworld’s mid and downtempo tracks that are probably the most divisive among fans and non-fans alike. The city-centre summer smog and warped vocal of “Puppies” (originally sandwiched between two better tracks on the “Tin There” CD) is downright weird, while the wooziness of the previously unreleased “Bug” features even more inexplicable samples, but some very fine production that hints at an almost complete track that never quite made the cut.

The most jarring element of the previously unreleased material discs is the inclusion of the “introductory bookmarks” at the start of each track: “This is, D’Arbly Street slow B4” or something, says a voice, taking you out of the moment in an actively annoying way. Only “D+B Thing,” which is as empty and soulless as it’s generic name would suggest, and the short and underdeveloped “4 Crowns” miss the mark. It’s actually a far stronger collection of unreleased material than the material on the Dubnobasswithmyheadman and is well worth the upgrade over the two-disc edition.

Born slippy.NUXX

As a band that primarily extols the virtues of the album, one of the minor tragedies of Second Toughest In The Infants is that in the wider public eye it was largely eclipsed by the looming body of a single track that it didn’t even feature. Neither the totally different and entirely instrumental original nor the “.NUXX” versions have ever appeared on any Underworld album bar compilations, instead released as a standalone single in 1995 that bridged the gap between Dubnobasswithmyheadman and Second Toughest In The Infants.

But then both it and the band were catapulted into the limelight via Danny Boyle’s wildly popular and successful movie Trainspotting, and “Born Slippy .NUXX” came to define Underworld for many. It was re-released in the wake of the film, reaching number two in the British charts and became one of the most aggravatingly over-played and misused tracks of the entire 1990s.

As brilliantly anthemic and well produced as it is, “.NUXX” lacks the layering, depth and atmosphere of their finest work, leaving ‘Second Toughest’ playing second-fiddle to an out of focus, nodding, trapper hat-wearing man jammed into a corner shouting: “Lager lager lager lager. Shouting… Lager lager lager”. One can’t help thinking that if Hyde had been shouting literally *anything* else, this wouldn’t have happened.

Underworld :: Second Toughest In The Infants - Remaster (Universal)

Perhaps fittingly, however, the super deluxe edition features an entire disc devoted to the slowly evolving nature of the track as it morphed and evolved via various studio mixes and live performances.

It’s quite a lot of “lager lager lager!” to get through, but quite honestly turns out to be a fascinating document of the track, nevertheless. Though they do eventually start to run together a little, probably the best of these live and intermediate versions of the track are “Nuxx A2221 Uw Live (2 Sets) Leicester M Dog 94” complete with crowd noise and segue from the set’s previous track, the rolling bass, constant shift and impeccable mix/production of the energetic “Nuxx Liquid Room 94 A2254 Uw Live Liquid Room 2 Tokyo.” And then it culminates with an extended (though ultimately completely faithful) mix of the famous track itself. Phew! We’re done now.

The four-disc super deluxe edition is quite an expensive set to buy, and comes packaged in much the same way as its predecessor. A thick and rigid 12″x12″ cardboard slipcase houses a casebound gatefold sleeve into which the four discs are inserted in pockets, which surrounds a large booklet featuring liner notes by Jon Savage and more exclusive—though frankly not terribly exciting—new artwork by original sleeve design company Tomato.

These sets do have the benefit of looking great stacked together with the rest of your vinyl collection, but I’d have been just as—if not more—happy if they’d just turned up in Modern Love-style oversized digifile sleeves at a fraction of the price.

So is the super-deluxe set just for fans? Well, perhaps not. Again, the price is going to be a barrier to entry for some, but even if you’re just an Underworld album owner there’s never been an easier or better sounding way to quickly extend your collection with some truly fantastic material.

Roll on the next super-deluxe installment from Underworld!

Second Toughest In The Infants – Reissue is available on Universal.

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