Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Tindersticks - Falling Down A Mountain

I went to see Tindersticks at The Royal Albert Hall a few years ago where they were backed by a full orchestra and provided an evening of lush music, tender, heartfelt singing and a memory of what they could be at their best. I say memory because I found their subsequent releases didn't excite me so much and the band itself underwent a seismic shift in 2006, literally splitting in half, leaving singer Stuart Staples to continue with Neil Fraser and Timothy Boulton and joined on this release by drummer Earl Harvin and guitarist David Kitt. That's quite a change to recover from and it may be unfair of me to complain that they haven't quite managed to rediscover the epic fullness of their sound, but as one of the band's most appealing qualities it is something that I miss. This album however does see them beginning to find their feet

Staples voice has always been the deal-breaker for many, coming dangerously close to Vic Reeve's club singer, but it's the kind of voice that can carry a hefty punch when it wants to. There are moment on the latest album that will only distance newcomers and the already unconvinced but what is surprising is the way that Staples' voice is accompanied and augmented by his fellow band members, the vocals working more cohesively than ever before. In fact the title track opens the new album as one of the most exciting tracks of theirs for ages: jazzy trumpet and looping bass, a smoky atmosphere through which vocals eventually appear, a definite air of invention about the place. There's something a bit spare and empty about Keep You Beautiful but there's a surprisingly upbeat tinge to Harmony Around My Table, complete with hand claps and doo-wop backing that will have those who have accused the Tindersticks of being maudlin to scratch their heads. (That's musically speaking of course. Lyrically things are as dark as ever: 'I found a penny, I picked it up / The other day I had some luck / That was two weeks last Tuesday / Since then there's been a sliding feeling.') The bafflement continues with Peanuts where Staples duets with former Miss America Mary Margaret O'Hara in a kind of down-tempo Let's Call The Whole Thing Off. What at first seems to be a song about compromise 'I know you love peanuts / And I love you / So I love peanuts too' also seems to be about being apart and the 'exquisite pain' of love.

The Hispanic influence heard on previous albums is picked up again on the Mexican influenced She Rode Me Down complete with Mariachi brass, Spanish guitar and hand-claps. Despite its many textures, including the rumble of thunder in the background, the track fails to really go anywhere though. There are two instrumentals on the album, Hubbards Hill which continues that Spanish theme and Piano Music which closes the album with the kind of spooky piano sound you might expect to find in a dusty old music hall. However pleasant they are it's difficult not to feel just slightly that they're filler. There's more joy from a track like Black Smoke which has a harder edge, Staples' vocals coming through a distorted mic, backing vocals chorusing the title, but a far more conventional structure that produces a track that genuinely rocks. Those voices work even closer together on the organ heavy No Place So Alone, another accessible track. Perhaps the biggest rebuttal to those who would easily dismiss the band comes on the penultimate track Factory Girls. Beginning with a simple piano and that distinctive voice Staples allows it to soar to emotional heights before the rest of the band join him to swell out the track. If you still think Staples' voice is cause for amusement after that then its possible you may never like it.

Released on 4AD records, the label have released an ecelectic mix of some of my favoured artists recently - Tune-Yards, Department Of Eagles, M Ward, Beirut, TV On The Radio... I could go on.


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