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Expectations for 1974, named after the year of the band's formation, were raised by the news that keyboard player Robert Jan Stips was back on board after a two-album absence. How to explain, then, that with a star player back on the team, the Nits turned in one of their most lackluster performances to date. Clearly aiming for something more spontaneous and playful than 2000s somewhat solemn Wool, they ended up instead with something that often sounds alarmingly half-baked. Much of the blame for this must attach to the material -- 1974 contains some of the band's flimsiest songs since 1994's Da Da Da. "Athens," "Espresso Girl," and "Savoy" (with its embarrassingly wacky lyrics about a rabbit and sampled snuffling noises) border on self-parody, while Stips' "Welcome Home" is arguably the most humdrum song ever recorded by the Nits. It's just possible that Henk Hofstede was fresh out of top-drawer material, having recently used up some of his strongest melodies in years for the solo Dutch-language project Het Draagbare Huis. Yet what's especially disappointing is the way that even the album's strongest tracks are hamstrung by slapdash arrangements, or promising ideas that simply aren't developed. "Chain of Ifs" begins with a jaunty piano figure that recalls the heyday of Harry Nilsson, yet it's no compensation for the threadbare melody that follows. Similarly, "Canigo" and "Espresso Girl" sound as though Hofstede was merely improvising a tune over an already existing groove. "Rumspringa" starts off like some kind of electronic hoedown before it too peters out, while the Arabic-tinged "Eifersucht" -- a great hit with live audiences that sometimes incorporated a snatch of the Beatles' "Within You, Without You" -- frustratingly stops dead after only two-and-a-half minutes (compared with the lifeless Athens' interminable five minutes). Only "Between the Buttons" should be guaranteed a place on any future "Best Of" compilations. Here, at least, you get the impression that actual sweat had been expended in crafting both melody and arrangement. Early pressings of the album came with a free, six-track DVD of live performances from 1982-2000.

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