So here I am on to my second Tindersticks review. I suppose Tindersticks are the kind of band who engender passionate outpourings. I think their debut is pretty grand, but this one, the second album was my first dalliance with the Tindersticks, and thus occupies that ‘special’ place. I bought it some time around 95 or 96. It took me a while to come to terms with but I think it probably has one or two bigger hits than Tindersticks I. Their 2001 release Can Our Love is pretty special to me too. Their third effort, Curtains, I’m not so sure about. I think on Curtains they were treading water when they needed to be moving forward.
Like Tindersticks I, Tindersticks II is a long album with a lot of good songs, but now after all this time, I find myself wondering how well I really know it. How many songs here will have me murmuring, Hmm, don’t remember this one..? Certainly, typing out the titles below, I’m like – have I ever looked at the tracklisting? Despite playing it dozens of times over the past 15 years, I don’t think I could have named more than three songs off this album. That’s always the interesting thing about being Alan Bumstead – you discover things about the albums you’ve always loved but didn’t really know, basing your ravings on a few good songs and discounting all those songs that left no mark on your radar. Well, that’s what Bumstead’s all about; the whole shebang, mate; the whole caboodle; the full monty, the total package. Roll the review Steadmeister…
El Diablo En El Ojo…which translates as ‘Devil In The Eye,’ is a goodie; a really great opener in the tradition of great openers, partly because the track seems to work as an introduction to the whole album. It’s just a low bass and a low stabbed organ sound, very soft, while Staples intones quietly, “I wouldn’t turn the sound down yet / Don’t even touch the dials, not yet / ‘Cause there’s things you’ve gotta hear here / There’s things you’ve gotta believe of me.” It’s quietly creepy; like a desperate man pleading with you to listen to him, pleading with you not to turn the volume down or give up on him. Then the violins come on all haunted house spooky, all out of sync and squealing over the end of the track. Some guitar distortion before segueing quickly into the next track.
A Night In…opens with voice, a quiet bass, drums and a faint organ drone in the background. But the tune here is magnificent. The strings come on quietly and build, and the lyric builds, and this is truly one of my favourite Tindersticks songs. Once the strings kick in properly, it becomes epic. “I know you’re hurting / And I can’t be there for you / I had shoes full of holes when you first took me in / I had hands full of callouses and sores/…/ I’m scared of the door, afraid of the floor / Well I’ll go and walk right through / Well I’ll show you who I’ve been running from.” This song just circulates round and round in ever increasing circles of magnificence, and yet it never quite reaches the limits. It remains perfectly poised, slightly understated, elegant, content to stay where it is, while suggesting at immense poignant emotions. The tune is just utterly beautiful. You can tell there is lot of pain somewhere in this song. You could think about every girl/boy you ever broke up with who was still in love with you, and it could break you in two if you weren’t careful. This is entrancing, captivating stuff, sends me into some dreamy state whenever I hear it.
My Sister…is another very memorable track. It’s probably the longest one here and yet again, this is brilliant stuff. There’s a warm bass sound with this pretty vibraphone playing a very simple Christmassy kind of three note melody…which then gets replaced by a piano. The lyrics are read as spoken word poetry in a serious, sad voice, beginning, “Do you remember my sister?” It’s a tragic story, albeit a fairly black humoured kind of tragedy. He starts off talking about their childhood when his sister went blind at age five and then one day at Christmas, she describes what she sees in her head and the music stops and goes all eerie-twinkly while two voices intone the sights she’s describing. That ends, the story resumes, and a lovely acoustic guitar strum comes on. The bass plays a heavy melody, and as more and more instruments join the mix, Staples voice gets pushed further back. You have to listen harder to hear the words, though you always can. And the harder you listen, the more tragic the story becomes. An ex-boyfriend beats her so that she loses all feeling in the right half of her body and ends up in a wheelchair. She stubs ciggies out on her right hand. She wants to be buried in a cheap coffin so the worms can get her to quickly. Musically, there’s a motif repeating over and over. A sax plays an improvised line in the instrumental breaks and the bass plays its short melodic line incessantly. Why was this band not hugely more successful? I can’t fathom it. This just gets more and more messed up as it goes along; jazzy, smashed cymbals, trumpets, saxes, strings and piano. A masterpiece.
Tiny Tears…begins with a very quiet, strummed guitar quietly far off, then bass comes on amidst other weird distant organ sounds. You already know where this is going; it builds and builds, the vocal gets more insistent, leading to a hugely melodic chorus in the classic vein: “Tiny tears make up an ocean / Tiny tears make up the sea / Let them pour out, pour out all over / Don’t let them pour all over me.” It’s singalongable, catchy, deep, meaningful, dramatic. The music supports this brilliantly. And in the second verse, the level of heightened emotion is maintained until the chorus hits again, while beautiful strings glow in the background. This is an embarrassment of riches. These guys must surely be going down in history. They’ve created wide screen cinema here. It’s just magnificent. It’s smoky, dark rooms, suicidally intense and both jazzy and orchestral at the same time. Talk about front load the album with momentous songs. I seriously hope the rest of the album lives up to these first four tracks. Here’s my gripe about the CD – it was always too long for me. It was just too much music, too much amazing stuff at 70 minutes. But as two disks, on vinyl, it’s much more manageable if you just treat each disc as a separate album.
Snowy in F# Minor…breaks straight into its first verse, and is more driving, much faster, more noise, everything comes in at once. No more of the dramatic build. This just launches all the parts together and it creates quite a different feel to the first four songs. It doesn’t quite have the big melody either. Instead, it has this insistent powerful noise/mix of brass, piano, bass, guitars, pushing the song forward…and then it’s over. The shortest song here so far. I never really catch the lyrics.
Seaweed…here’s one that I feel slightly unfamiliar with it. Piano, deep bass and other clear strange sounds. Yes, despite having played the CD dozens of times I feel like I’ve never heard this song before. It comes tucked behind so many great songs, that it’s really low-key, and the melody’s not that memorable. There’s a kind of shuffly collection of murky sounds all blending together to form a sound bed beneath the vocal. Vocal is close mic’ed but again, I never really catch the lyrics here. It demands to be listened to in the moment. I guess it would have been just too much to continue in the run of the first four songs. The fifth, Snowy, was a good transition, but this one, while I don’t want to condemn it, because there’s clearly a lot of thought and structuring and texturing gone into it, doesn’t really leave a strong impression. More of a mood piece driven by a pretty piano line and someone faintly whistling in the background. Slowly fades itself out.
Vertrauen II… is weird. It sounds like trains or vehicles down the other end of a tunnel in a subway. Huge stabbed echoing guitar lines, just stabbed like sheets of metal, echoing through a tunnel. Then a build of brass into something very intense, and everything builds together into a great pressurized moment or climax. It’s an instrumental. The drumming sounds like the wings of a bat beating against a cave. The drumming and weird echoey effects remind me of ‘The Hanging Garden’ by the Cure. There’s a lot going on. Quite scary sounding. Very film noir. Cool. Then fade out.
Talk To Me…as I stated in my introduction above, I realize I’m much less familiar with the second half of the album. It’s so frontloaded with big tunes and epic songs that I’ve forgotten what happens after that. This one is driven by a very low bass line and a repeated piano motif, with a vocal that builds in sync with a string line. The bass line is heavy and slightly haunted. Key lyric: “It comes back from the dead…climbs….back into our bed”. Again, we’re back with the old familiar theme of miserable, failing, dead relationships, unhappy women, guys who can’t be faithful, breakdowns. This builds, lyrics stop, music crescendos with an industrial grind of strings and things. “Talk to me darling / Before you throw it away / Look into these eyes now / It’s too far to fall / You can’t kill this love no, you can’t kill this love / I know it’s scary darling / It comes back from the dead.” Big loud stabbed strings, heightened drama, screeching brass, and an epic orchestral section, never sappy but always mixed with a sax skronk or distorted electric guitars and a punishing bass line. Doesn’t quite have the huge melody of earlier songs, but it’s pretty full on.
No More Affairs…is a nicer affair. Staples’s murky voice, a drum, and a quiet organ. “How you gonna find out / If my hand beside my side /… this last affair.” Can’t quite catch all the words. “There’s no more affairs, no more fooling around.” This one keeps itself fairly staid always threatening to break out into something momentous but never quite managing it. The lyrics do build, and the strings surround the voice quietly but in a supporting way, and okay, so yeah, the formula thing again. I don’t mean that in a negative way, but there is definitely a very particular way in which the Tindersticks construct songs. Mostly quiet builds that grow ever so slowly into a chorus. That fades but when the chorus comes back the second time, all hell breaks loose. This one quiets down again and finishes.
Singing…begins with an organ playing an odd little melody….for about 40 seconds. Over.
Traveling Light…here’s one of the singles, harking back to the majesty of those opening songs. This is a great little duet with Carla Torgerson of the Walkabouts. She’s got a smooth voice, singing alternate lines with Staples as they deconstruct a past relationship. “You travel light / (everything I’ve done) / You say you can justify you travel light,” they sing back and forth to each other. It’s really pretty and has a kickass tune, with a dramatic string section bolstering the chorus. “Do you remember how much you loved me? / (You say you have no room in my thick old head) / Well it comes with the hurt and the guilt and the memory / (If I have to take them away with me, I’d never get from my bed)…/…There’s a crack in the roof where the rain falls through / That’s where you always decide to sit / (Yeah I know I’m there for hours, with the rain running down my face).” They sing these lines to each other. He then keeps protesting “I travel light” and she tells him “You don’t travel light”. There’s something immensely sad about the way he keeps saying he does and she says he doesn’t. You kind of sense that she’s the one who’s right. This is a standout track, for sure.
Cherry Blossoms…is just Staples reading a poem in one speaker, and singing over top of that in another speaker, while a piano plonks away in the background. Then the strings moan their way into the background. It has a pleasant poignant kind of melody, but it’s real dark European noir kind of stuff. Again, empty rooms in Paris, distant pianos, far off cello. Post-war depression. That kind of thing. Not sure what the lyrics are about. Pretty morbid stuff this one. An alarm clock rings way in the background. Next song starts…
She’s Gone…nice warm ‘bed’ of bass and what? Guitar? Most of the time I have no idea what’s actually creating some of the more esoteric sounds here. I think it is guitar, but it sounds like the hum of a swarm of bees. Here, we’re getting deep into the far recesses of the album. Not much of a tune. It feels completely new to me, so I can kind of hear quite clearly the way they structure the song, which is pretty much the same template as before. The song floats along on its sound bed, but there’s always a point where the vocal switches gear to a slightly higher note. The lyrics sort of circulate in Tindersticks songs. He’s quite good at doing that – bringing the end of a verse around to segue quite naturally into the chorus. The chorus here is pretty insignificant though. Then the song ends. It’s short and not much to get excited about.
Mistakes…starts off as a sound collage of moaning violins, a woman speaking in French, and clocks. Then the song begins with a piano, a bass and a seesawing violin way in the background. The vocal upfront. I guess I’m going to start playing the second disk a bit more to re-discover some of these later songs. Here comes the build. The volume increases. The intensity of the strings tightens. The vocal gets louder. Everything escalates. The vocal is just ‘da da dum, da da da da” and then “Mistakes are made / I know I’ll live with them all my life / Mistakes are made like the one….you know the one.” Wow. Where does he get these stories from? Are they all personal? It’s like every song is a movie. It’s like if you went out and cheated on your partner then your relationship will have been bruised, and then bruised again and again until you’ve got two people pulling their hair out and screaming cellos and violins of emotion at each other. Or it’s her. She’s the one he can’t live with. Big build, big piano riffs and fade.
Vertrauen III…presumably a continuation of Vertrauen II from Side Two. Another instrumental, this time with bowed saw. Mercury Rev made the bowed saw a feature on their magnificent Deserter’s Songs, but Tindersticks got there first, right here. I can’t say I ever noticed that before. This segues back into the tune of Vertrauen II but it’s less intense, although still weird and eerie with that bowed saw. A rock rhythm with strings and glocks and spooked violins. This is pretty unusual stuff. The Tindersticks ended up doing all those Claire Denis instrumental movie soundtracks and likewise, this kind of thing is not that far removed from ‘cinematic’.
Sleepy Song…last song. Doubt my brain has ever registered this one before. Very quiet start, almost whispered vocal. Good idea putting a ‘sleepy song’ on at the end. I was probably asleep before I ever got to this song in my past listening. It definitely lives up to its title. Everything is muted, a very basic two note melody. Staples intones something about being so “sleepy, I could close my eyes.”His voice is half muffled as if he’s singing into a pillow. Can’t quite hear the words any more. It’s a lullaby that tries to lullaby itself to sleep. Then a lone flute or woodwind plays over the top of the sound bed before a huge drone of woodwind-like noise vrooms over everything. If you were sleeping, then you just got hammered in the head. Not sure what that was supposed to represent. One final strum on a guitar with a pedal effect to wave the song off…and…the end.
Quite the tour de force. Check out why Curtains, the follow-up doesn’t quite live up to the glory of their first two albums.
This was Alan Bumstead’s 16th favourite album of the 90s