“When you look through my eyes, you see trouble everyday.”
—Tindersticks, “Opening Titles”
So begins the first song on Tindersticks’ haunting soundtrack to Trouble Every Day, the latest film by French art house director, Claire Denis. The line is a perfect jumping off point because it not only offers a glimpse into to the edgy subject matter of Denis’ film, whose heroine is a troubled, promiscuous and beautiful young cannibal living in Paris, but also an introduction to the unique brand of melancholia that Tindersticks continues to refine on this album.
Longtime fans will already know that the soundtrack for Trouble Every Day marks the second collaboration between Tindersticks and Claire Denis. In 1996, the band created the original score for Denis’ film, Nenette et Boni, another much acclaimed though controversial project. While that soundtrack may have introduced uninitiated moviegoers to Tindersticks’ shadowy charms, this latest effort represents a more confident step forward and suggests that the director has found the perfect cohorts to share her dark and provocative vision.
Of course, the musical progress on this album is typically subtle. Unlike the blue-eyed soul experiment of last years’ album, Can Our Love, and its best track, the astonishing “People Keep Coming Around”, Trouble Every Day does not contain any real musical surprises. Instead, Tindersticks are once again content to tweak their signature blend of measured piano/string arrangements by fleshing them out with an eclectic assortment of harp, bongos, and menacing brass. As always, the whole mixture is topped off by the band’s true calling card, the tortured baritone of singer Stuart Staples, which drips over everything like melting caramel. Tindersticks aficionados will be comforted to know that, soundtrack or not, this is another expertly rendered Tindersticks album through and through. If the band’s artistic growth can sometimes be measured in terms of plate tectonics perhaps it is only because their style came out of the womb so fully formed that there is no glaring need for improvement. Without changing a note, Tindersticks’ trademark sound is so addictive that even the most level headed newcomers are often compelled to run out and purchase every Tinderstick album within hours of their first exposure.
Unfortunately for newcomers, though, Trouble Every Day is not the best place to start their addiction. Eleven of the 14 tracks are instrumental pieces and Staples’ mournful voice is noticeably absent for large portions of the proceedings. That aside, the three songs that feature Staples are obvious highlights and worthy additions to the Tindersticks canon. Staples is clearly present for the brooding lead track, “Opening Titles”, which combines his soulful lament with a musical theme that continues to weave its way through the album in numerous different guises. After that short prologue though Staples disappears into the gloomy background for nearly 40 minutes before he is heard from again. Predictably, his return for “Closing Titles” is the dramatic climax of the album and his duet with co-vocalist, Dikon Hinchliffe, builds to a dizzying peak. The album ends almost as an afterthought with the brooding title track, “Trouble Every Day”, a longer variation of the Opening/Closing Titles numbers. This long version of “Trouble Every Day” is one of the best performances of Tindersticks’ career and is sure to take its place as a favorite among the band’s cult following.
On those tracks that do not feature Staples, the classic Tindersticks elements are woven into a series of short, sparse and shadowy soundscapes that seem informed by the mystical minimalism of composers such as Henryk Gorecki or John Tavener in their use of slow, repetitive piano figures tolling beneath simple violin borne melodies. The basic formula is sometimes augmented with a muted trumpet or trombone that evoke the image of a sinister lounge band playing on a rain swept night. Again, many of the pieces are based around reoccurring melodic themes. The hopeful theme that defines “Dreams” reappears in “Notre Dame” and reaches its crescendo in “Core on Stairs/Love Theme”. Listening to how the compositions recycle these themes into new and different variations and moods throughout the album makes for an entertaining side game of hide-and-seek. Although mostly short, the instrumental pieces have a cumulative force when heard together that creates a dark, agitated and disturbing mood. However, only a few of the instrumental pieces have the same power standing alone. The best of these pieces, “Killing Theme”, begins with a single cello carrying the melody before being joined by foreboding strings, trumpet, and piano. The combination provides the albums’ most quietly chilling moments and the piece is so devilishly good that the album contains a second alternative version as a bonus track.
As soundtracks go, Trouble Every Day is a definite cut above the typical Hollywood mush. Tindersticks create an elegant and unsettling collection of small mood pieces that stand miles apart from anything else you are likely to hear at the local multiplex. The visual and cinematic qualities always inherent in Tindersticks music also allow this music to be enjoyed as a listening experience apart from the images and narrative of Denis’ film. While neophytes may be better off starting their Tindersticks experience with the band’s classic self-titled second album, Trouble Every Day quietly ranks with the best of the band’s previous work and supplies a much needed fix for those who have already succumbed to Tindersticks’ sad and addictive beauty.