Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Tindersticks: The Turns I Took

I'm having a bit of a rest this week, but rather than neglect The Album Wall entirely, I thought I'd take this opportunity to share with you some blog posts from the past. Today's post was first seen on Gaxa & Lerberg, my short-lived music blog that began and ended in early 2012:

When you discover a band who a) are good enough to be worth investigating, and b) have been around for long enough to have a fairly extensive back catalogue, working your way through that catalogue can be an adventure that takes months, even years. R.E.M. were my first, and I've come across several other  bands like that since first I devoured their discography. I think Tindersticks are the most recent one; they've been going since 1991, and their eight studio albums are just drops in an ocean that's swimming with singles, live albums, compilations, side projects, and film scores. I've still got a long way to go, but here's my journey so far... 

1. The Hungry Saw

My first taste of Tindersticks came in the summer of 2009, when I bought The Hungry Saw from Fopp in Bristol. I'd heard their name mentioned a lot on the internet, and while I wasn't really sure what to expect, the album was only £5, so I decided to give it a go.

It was a good introduction. The album doesn't exactly slap you in the face; it takes its time, slowly unfurling as you gradually realise how breathtaking it is. After a wonderfully tense introduction, the highlights come thick and fast: there's the grandiose uncertainty of Come Feel the Sun; there's The Other Side of the World, which starts out quiet and fragile but eventually grows into the album's swooping centrepiece; there's Mother Dear, which has this crazy, no-rhythm guitar bit in the middle but then suddenly goes all pretty and nice. And then, at the end of it all, there's The Turns We Took, which I'll always remember as the song I was listening to as the sun set on the long coach ride back home from Germany.

2. Falling Down a Mountain

So I liked The Hungry Saw, and when its successor, Falling Down a Mountain, came out the following year, I wasted no time in checking it out. I wasn't quite as enamoured as I was with The Hungry Saw, but that's not to say I didn't enjoy it. It has some classic songs, all right - Harmony Around My Table is great fun, and the beautiful Factory Girls might be my favourite 'Sticks song of all, even now that I know some of their earlier stuff. But the ten tracks are over all too quickly, and while it's usually good for an album to be concise and leave me wanting more, I feel that Falling Down a Mountain takes too long to get going, and ends just as it's getting really good. There's the aforementioned Factory Girls, the unspeakably lovely instrumental Piano Music, and then that's your lot. Off you go.

3. Live at Green Man

A few months after the release of Falling Down a Mountain, it was announced the Tindersticks would be performing at that year's Green Man Festival, for which I had already secured tickets. 'Great,' I thought, 'although I don't suppose they'll do many songs that I know.' By this point, it had come to my attention that I really didn't know anything about Tindersticks at all. Their Top Tracks on were completely unknown to me, and nobody seemed to have anything to say about the two albums I had. Unless, of course, someone was saying how much they preferred their earlier work.

That said, I needn't have worried about the Green Man setlist. Every other song was taken from Falling Down a Mountain, and while I suspect that the band's more diehard fans were a little miffed, I was thrilled. It was a great show, all the songs (including the ones I didn't know) were brilliant, and they even played The Other Side of the World!

They would have been my favourite act of the festival, had I not been blown away by The Flaming Lips the night before.

4. Waiting for the Moon

In retrospect, the Green Man set was probably what turned me from a casual listener into a fully-fledged Tinderstickler. When I left the festival site that night, I was eager to dive head-first into the Tindersticks back catalogue, and I knew exactly where to start.

Of the older songs Tindersticks had played at Green Man, one in particular had caught my ear. I didn't know what it was (I probably should have asked the man stood next to me who knew every word), but upon returning from the festival I Googled the scrap of lyrics I could remember:

"You're wasting your time...something something something...a different song"

And up popped the lyrics for Sometimes It Hurts. I found the song on YouTube, listened to it, The studio version turned out to be a boy/girl duet, and while it was just as emotional as I'd come to expect from Tindersticks, it was also pretty damn catchy! Y'know, in a sad sort of way.

So the next time I found myself in Bristol (my dad takes me there every so often; he buys a tonne of books, I buy a tonne of CDs), I bought Waiting for the Moon, also from Fopp, also for £5, on the strength of Sometimes It Hurts alone. I put the CD on in the car on the way home, and while my dad was a bit perturbed by the opening song's first lines - "My hands 'round your throat/If I kill you now well they'll never know" - even he seemed to like Sometimes It Hurts. Just to be clear, my dad finds most of the music I listen to completely unbearable, so the simple fact that he didn't just turn it off is pretty high praise.

Still, Waiting for the Moon was - and probably still is - my least favourite Tindersticks record yet. It has its moments, but for every Say Goodbye to the City or My Oblivion (both of which are electrifying for entirely different reasons), there's something like Trying to Find a Home or the title track. Everything on the album is very pretty, but a lot of it isn't much else.

Besides, I was still in fairly recent territory - Waiting for the Moon was the album before The Hungry Saw - and everyone on the internet seemed adamant that if you were going to get a Tindersticks album, it had to be one of the Tindersticks albums.

5. Tindersticks

'08 February 2011', informs me, is the date on which I ordered the band's eponymous first album. The first thing that struck me upon its arrival was the sheer number of tracks. There are twenty-one! I suspected that I wouldn't have any issues with this one being over too quickly.

Accustomed as I was to latter-day 'Sticks, starting again at the other end of their career was a bit of a shock. This album is a lot more guitar-based than the albums that came afterwards, which results in some surprisingly catchy, straightforward indie numbers like Nectar and Patchwork. On the other hand, there's also a handful of jazzier, discordant tracks - Tyed, for example.

There's a lot of variation throughout the record, so it keeps you interested throughout its seventy-five minute plus runtime. Although - and I'm slightly ashamed of this - I've only made it all the way through once. Not because I get bored, because it's not boring at all, but...I guess I keep putting the album on from the start, getting up to maybe 'Tie-Dye' (Track 14 of 21), and then I have to go and do something else for a bit.

It's a very good album, but remember how I said that it's usually good for an album to be concise and leave me wanting more? I wouldn't have minded paying for two albums here. These songs are a lot more self-contained than the ones on Falling Down a Mountain, so splitting it into two sets of ten or eleven tracks would have been fine with me. It's heresy, I know, but seventy-seven minutes is a long time. It's too much to get through in one sitting, like a Sunday roast followed by a pizza.

6. Tindersticks II

By this point I felt like an expert. I'd spent ages poring over the titles of songs I hadn't heard, wondering what lay beneath. I could tell you that Tiny Tears was one of the band's best and probably a good place to start, in spite of having never heard a note of it. I did this when I was getting seriously into R.E.M., too; I remember buying Document off eBay and then being very disappointed when 'ITEOTWAWKI (AIFF)' was just an abbreviation of 'It's The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)'. I think I was hoping that they'd named a song by just leaning on a typewriter.

Anyway, I got Tindersticks II as a Christmas present in 2011, and it might well be my favourite Tindersticks album yet. The songs are lyrically affecting and musically stunning, and Stuart Staples has never sounded better. In fact, I shouldn't have allowed myself to get this far without mentioning the guy's voice; it's a lovely, deep voice, at once indifferent and utterly utterly miserable.

As this neat little track-by-track review would suggest, there are a lot of gems on this album, from the brooding and then SUDDENLY QUITE LOUD strings of Talk To Me to the horribly depressing* spoken word of My Sister.  But you know what? A lot of those gems weren't the ones I was expecting. Before I'd heard the album, I'd assumed that She's Gone and No More Affairs would be the high points. Given those names, I expected soaring, emotionally wracked mini-epics that would have me falling in love with music all over again while simultaneously making me want to throw out my entire, inferior CD collection in disgust.

Such can be the suggestive power of song titles, but I suppose nothing could have lived up to what I'd imagined. No More Affairs is good, but a little less epic than I'd hoped for, and I barely even noticed She's Gone. It's just too understated compared to the other stuff.

And yet my hopes for the album were dramatically realised in songs like Travelling Light and Mistakes. Who knows why those titles hadn't caught my eye, but holy heck you can't ignore material like that. The former is a duet, not unlike my beloved Sometimes it Hurts, while Mistakes constitutes the album's climax - the last, wretched hurrah before it winds down. Just listen, and feel your heart skip a beat when he sings:

"Mistakes I've made, like the know the one."

7. What next?

So it's been two and a half years since I forked out £5 for The Hungry Saw and I've still only got five of their eight albums. It's been a slow-burning journey of discovery, which is rather fitting given the music I've been discovering. Third album Curtains seems like the next step, being as it contains their most listened-to song, 'Another Night In'. Then again, they're supposed to be releasing a new album this year, so perhaps I'll end up getting that first. Either way, it looks like I'll be discovering Tindersticks for a while yet.

(Update, July 2013: As it turned out, The Something Rain was the next Tindersticks album I bought, but I have recently acquired Curtains as well. In fact, you can find out what I thought of that here.)


* Someone on has suggested that 'My Sister' is a sort of self-parody, a tongue-in-cheek reaction to the people who said their first album was too miserable. But even if that is the case, it's still hella depressing; the titular sister goes blind, kills her cat and mother by accidentally (?) starting a house fire, falls down a well (which might actually be a good thing because it somehow causes her sight to return), has a relationship with a gym teacher who is subsequently sacked from his job, gets beaten up by said gym teacher to the point that she loses the use of the right-hand side of her body, gains a lot of weight from being in a wheelchair, and eventually dies at the age of 32. Oh those wacky Tindersticks.

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