Tindersticks - "Black Smoke" (Falling Down a Mountain)
When I reviewed Tindersticks’ lovely, gracefully underdone 2008 album The Hungry Saw, I imagined that the Nottingham chamber-pop / gothic-soul outfit was probably not long for the world. Instrumental lynchpin Dickon Hinchliffe had taken off, the gruff baritone of Stuart Staples sounded weary and resigned, and the wispy (if achingly pretty) arrangements belied the band’s lush, cinematic pedigree. It was a grand 14-year run, but I figured this was it, and looked forward to Staples’s idiosyncratic solo career. Surely, he and Charlotte Gainsbourg would be dueting in no time.
Color me pleasantly surprised. The Hungry Saw, it turns out, actually revitalized Tindersticks, spurring the band to an unprecedented level of productivity. Having toured since The Hungry Saw’s release, the band now presents Falling Down a Mountain, as dense, focused and resolute a record as it has turned in.
Of the new stuff, only the gentle ballad “Keep You Beautiful” evokes the haunting minimalism that dominated The Hungry Saw. On most of the balance (particularly the Motown-indebted finger-snapper “Harmony Around My Table,” the self-consciously Southwestern-ish “She Rode Me” and the rhythmically complex title tune), the texture is heavier, the mood is more propulsive, and Staples’ wounded vocals share center stage with keys, trumpet and eclectic percussion. Beneath the baroque arrangements, the compositions are more catchy and conventional; while Tindersticks has always celebrated the sort of excess and eccentricity befitting Scott 1-4-era Scott Walker, “No Place So Alone” and the single “Black Smoke” sound more like outtakes from Loaded. The band’s most richly produced record is also its most accessible.
Which could make it a less enduring one. That is, if it weren’t for the stark gallows humor that lurks in all of Tindersticks’ music.
Witness “Peanuts,” a winsome 6/8 ballad, a duet between Staples and the Canadian cult figure Mary Margaret O’Hara. “I know you love peanuts / And I love you,” she sings, “So I love peanuts too.” Relationships are, after all, about compromise, about respecting the little quirks. How sweet. Then, in a third-act pivot, the fella blows the scene, and “Peanuts” becomes one of the most lyrically cryptic numbers in the Staples canon. While there’s nothing here as scathingly melancholy as The Hungry Saw’s “All the Love” or as pathologically dark as “My Sister” (from the second of two self-titled records, which came out a long, long time ago), Tindersticks’ rococo soul is still beholden to a uniquely warped imagination.