It hasn't even been two years since Tindersticks' last release, The Hungry Saw. The rush shows.
To be honest, I’ve never really gotten over Tindersticks’ eponymous second album (sometimes called Tindersticks II). It’s flawless. I come back to it every winter, as if there’s something about this uniquely British melancholia -- the sweeping string arrangements, Stuart Staples’s haunting baritone (enough to make Nick Cave sound positively pubescent), lyrics of regret and longing -- that simply fits with desolate, snowy landscapes.
It is, really, a seasonal thing: like clockwork, when December arrives, I find myself tempted to place the spoken-word nightmare of “My Sister” on every mixtape I make. I get lost in sordid lyrical gems like “Do you ever want to take that knife and discover?” The album’s most chilling slow-burners -- “A Night In”, “Tiny Tears”, “Mistakes”, “Talk to Me” -- begin sparse, with Staples’s lower-than-low crooning accompanied by little more than a bass line. They build into something best identifiable as catharsis, all swelling strings and bleating horns and messy emotional climax.
The follow-up, Curtains, was nearly as good. But then, somewhere around 1999’s Simple Pleasures, something funny happened. The group left the bombast behind, abandoned its epic album lengths, embraced neo-soul influences. Sometimes it worked. And while Can Our Love… (2001) and Waiting for the Moon (2003) each contained moments of sincere brilliance (“People Keep Comin’ Around”, “Until the Morning Comes”, “Waiting for the Moon”), their second halves particularly seemed weighted down by tedious, go-nowhere melancholia. Not bad albums by any means -- just… dull. Dreary. Quietly disappointing. Tindersticks II succeeded on gnawing, eventually explosive tension. These songs merely float.
I thought -- hoped -- Falling Down a Mountain would be different. It’s not mere wishful thinking; the near seven-minute title track blasts open the album with some of the most searing inspiration I’ve heard from this band in years. One wouldn’t expect to see an adjective like blast associated with Tindersticks -- their intros float, groove, whisper, soar; anything but blast -- but here it applies: “Falling Down a Mountain” is pure, unadulterated Bitches Brew tribute, all messy jazz drums and ominous bass and raw fusion-style trumpet. And when it establishes a sly groove on interlocking vocal harmonies (“Falling down a mountain” / “Baby, why don’t you come on, baby, catch me”), it’s captivating.
In its unquestionably unique way, this is the closest the group has come to recapturing the dark intensity of Tindersticks II. If only the rest of the album could match up.
There are other breaks in the monotony, to be sure. “Harmony Around My Table”, a would-be first single if I’ve heard one, is excellent; with its Stonesy piano, handclaps, doo-wop harmonies, and swift tempo, it sounds positively upbeat, another rare Tindersticks descriptor. “She Rode Me Down”’s intensely visual relationship portrayal (“She rode me like a train, like a hurtling steaming train”) calls to mind “Bearsuit” from Curtains. Musically, the track is downright exotic, a revolving door of cellos, flutes, and thunder effects atop a Mexican guitar pattern. “Black Smoke” and “No Place So Alone” try for the same energy but fail, each plagued by lazy two-chord melodies that belie Staples’s obvious songwriting talent.
To describe the rest of the album in such detail would be redundant. All the elements are in place -- dreary, orchestral instrumentals (“Hubbard Hills” and the aptly titled “Piano Music”); lightly soulful balladry (“Keep You Beautiful” and “Factory Girls”); an elegant vocal duet (“Peanuts”, with Mary Margaret O'Hara); crushing lyrical sentiments like “There’s no place so alone as somewhere you once belonged”. Is it all too familiar? Or does it all feel slightly phoned in?
Both. Like Leonard Cohen and Scott Walker, this group has long been noted for its intensely melancholic tone. On Falling Down a Mountain, the most depressing thing is the sound of Tindersticks going through the motions.