Tindersticks, Curtains, 1997

I bought Curtains back in 1997, the year it came out. I played it a lot, tried to get into it and somehow fooled myself into thinking it was my favourite Tindersticks album. I can distinctly remember playing it again a year or three later and being surprised how little of it I remembered, how few songs had left any impression on me at all. There are a few here with great tunes, but by and large, from memory, Curtains lacks something the first two albums had in spades, which for me, is that wonderful avante jazziness, those oblique, slanted brass lines, those dissonant soundscapes; these are mostly gone, having been replaced by a more moody but soulful sound, more strings and brass. The strings, oh the strings. They’re more prominent in these songs, and they do wonders for uplifting the mood, melancholy or otherwise, but border too close to embroidery. In Curtains, the band’s third long player, we have another sixteen songs. That’s 53 songs across their first three albums, which is about 20 more than most bands manage. So here goes another mammoth review.

Around the time of this album and from fifth album Can Our Love… onwards , it became trendy to begin every Tindersticks review with something like, “They do what they do well but…” and other comments that signal the band were somehow repeating themselves. Yet if repeating yourself means sounding like yourself, then there’s a lot of bands out there repeating themselves, so what this kind of comment suggests to me is that (1) it’s true that Tindersticks do have a fairly unique sound and (2) that its uniqueness means its starting to sound derivative and there aren’t enough standout tracks to grab the reviewer’s attention away from the sound. I can only concur with this observation in the case where the songs don’t quite live up to former glories. As I mentioned above, while the sound is similar to Tindersticks I and II, in my reckoning this is a slightly more commercial sound and while it’s nice on the ears, it lacks the sheer amount of detail and variety found on those earlier albums. Perhaps in response to these foregoing criticisms (though unlikely) the band made a conscious decision to change after this album because the followup to Curtains, Simple Pleasure, is a decided step away from the string-drenched glamour of this one.

As for songwriting, that’s what Bumstead’s all about, so perhaps we spin the black circle and do the run through…

Another Night In…begins with a cinematic cello flourish, heavy piano notes, deep bass and seesawing violins with a lush full bodied sound. “For the love of that girl / Tears swell, you don’t know why / For the love of that girl / They fall, they never run dry” is the chorus which comes on quite quickly. Staples’ baritone quavers, the strings heighten the tension, the swelling drama is palpable. This is a big sound and a huge song to open with, one of their biggest, which runs contrary to how they opened their first two albums. Each time the chorus comes back in the volume seems to get louder. The tune is captivating; the listener gets crushed beneath those violins, the bass and resounding piano. It’s a different move opening the album with such a big song. Is it standard commercial exploitation putting your most melodic effort up front? In any case, it’s a good opener, provided of course that the formula is not repeated. Despite the vocal being clear in the mix it’s hard to grasp the exact lyrics because of Staples’ deep tones; syllables are merged together and even the chorus goes by without the words being clear. Once you look them up and know what they are, of course they seem perfectly audible. Lyrics seem to be about a girl he’s in love with but can’t quite hold on to. On nights he’s not with her, someone else is. Staples sing-suffers.

Rented Rooms…also relies on piano and sweeping violins for its melodic thrust, including brass backing. The lyrics here are a lot more audible. This has a much nicer rhythm on drums, a softer mellower feel than ‘Another Night In’ with a more fluid rhythm and acoustic strum driving it forwards. The brass and strings and vocal all sort of float and waft over its rhythm in waves of musical emotion, while Staples sings about love in hotel rooms, illicit love, singing about how little time they have together. Is one or other of them married? Is this an affair? This is a sublime song, really. It’s melodies are more understated than the first track, and all the richer for it. It sort of exists in the shadow of that bombastic opener, but I think this shines a more brilliant light for managing to make itself known after ‘Another Night In’.

Don’t Look Down…that sublime and subdued feel continues into this track. In fact the album has made a noticeable turn towards warmer and mellower yet darker tones. Here we have organs, violins mixed further back, a bass line that plays along with the plaintive pleading vocal. Here Staples’ voice wavers with a despairing kind of emotionalism. His voice is beautiful in this song. It’s far more emotional than either of the first two songs. “It shot out of me as if all of the love just got ripped out of me.” I don’t quite know what’s happened here, but he either just got dumped or she just committed suicide. The latter is more likely given the way he sings this, as if he’s about to take his own life. It’s moving stuff. Each time he sings this line, the following instrumentation gets louder, more torn apart, more orchestral, more cacophonous, until the tempest relents and the violins keep stringing some kind of steely note in the background. Finally the song fades away without being fully resolved. Magnificent. I’m surprised at how good this is. So Side One really does open up with three amazing tracks. The first was bombastic, Wagnerian in scope and possibly single-handedly responsible for my assuming that the whole album used strings in the same way. I’m feeling good about this. Again, close listening is quickly revealing the depths that I hadn’t heard before. The lyrics are not always easy to catch in these songs. But so far we get the drift–bad love set in a perpetual world of 2 a.m.  I suppose ‘Curtains’ seems like an apt album name at this point, a phrase usually signaling the end of something dramatic.

Dick’s Slow Song…opens with a hovering organ and vibraphonic bells before a warm bassline and slow drumbeat take over. The whole thing rides on a slightly warbly spooky organ sound, the vocals are mumbled and subdued, occasional whining strings fade in from the background. Vocals change from speaker to speaker, Staples’ voice in one speaker, then the same voice, perhaps a little quieter overlapping from the right speaker. The tune is very slight, the song doesn’t change much. The lyric is sung to a woman who appears to be unhappy with her looks; he’s trying to get her to come to bed and he has to convince her that he likes her the way she is. The song is a bit dreary, which fits with the sentiment but doesn’t leave much of an impression, though it’s pleasant to listen to in the moment for it’s very subdued mood.

Fast One…is indeed a fast one. Noisy, dissonant, running at a pace and short. Very short in fact, and sounds like a throwback to the first album. There’s a seesawing whine, an out of tune squealy violin grating in the background. An incessant rhythm, lyrics that are mixed in with the noise and impossible to make out clearly, which are then taken over by more whining noises, moving up and down. This is interesting, a nice textural break in the sound of the album so far, and suddenly, as quick as it started, its over, with a noisy wavering final off-tone.

Ballad of Tindersticks…is a long poem with about three A4 length pages of lines. The music is mellow, a slightly jazzy organ, a whine, a repeated flanged guitar strum and a moody bassline. The lyrics are the key feature here. The entire song is about touring America, playing New York, Los Angeles and Vegas. The song is soaked in champagne at every turn. He’s deeply cynical. “Our sense of irony is wearing pretty thin.” Every second line is about showbiz folk, getting drunk, sycophants, alcohol, being out of your head, being a star, the misery of it all, Hollywood transvestites, a hotel room like the one Jim Morrison or John Belushi died in. A cynical tone-poem about the misery of being in a successful pop band, the escapism, the irony of it all in light of what life used to be like before they were famous. Now, back in London they can get into “exclusive for arseholes” nightclubs just by a nod of the head, saturated in more alcohol, making drunken confessions. Wanting only to wheel his daughter around the supermarket. Success was never so frowned down on. The musical ‘bed’ continues in the same vein throughout the song. Certainly interesting to listen to the lyrics and something to think about. No real tune to speak of.

Dancing…this is even mellower and slower still than ‘Ballad of Tindersticks.’ It has a very subtle but quite pretty melody. “I understand everything / I understand everything,” Staples sings. “Take me in your arms,” he mumbles. A slowly strummed guitar, a subdued organ drone. The most melodic and my favourite on Side Two. It’s not an immediate or obvious track by any stretch, it fades in and out so slowly, but it’s long enough for its delicate and melancholy tune to get inside your head. I like it. We’ve moved so far from ‘Another Night In’ that I realise now that my ‘sentimental strings’ criticism seems completely mistaken. There’s much less textural brass here for sure, but so far it’s really only the opening song that’s done the big commercial number on us.

Let’s Pretend…and here we’re back to the string-drenched sound. This is very orchestral, hordes of strings playing the melody in unison for a minute until the vocal comes in. They warble symphonically and build to support the chorus. In the instrumental break, brass joins the strings, the volume rises before the second verse begins and…ah, no it doesn’t, there’s no second verse. This is the song that I’m talking about. This is the one, the one that gives the album a sentimental note in my memory. The tune is not so great, it’s okay, and it’s enjoyable for what it is, but yeah, this is the one that makes me think they’re using strings to make up for what’s lacking in great songwriting. Having said that, it’s still a pleasantly melodic minor epic. The song seems to be about jealousy: “Let’s not blow it out of all sense / As thought it meant so much / It’s always thought about for weeks / Not every time your lips meet mine I think of her.”

Desperate Man…introduces a totally new sound. Just a lightly strummed acoustic guitar with a walking bassline. Staples sings plaintively over the top of the tune. The lyrics are interesting here: He’s singing about how every time she goes away, the ring on his finger starts itching. There’s a kind of pony clip clop beat in the background. It’s a quiet pleasant song. Great line “I’m slumped there in that seat / And slobbering of how much I love her,” and continually returning to the chorus, “I’m a desperate man.” A very faint brass instrument buzzes briefly before the song ends. Nice.

Buried Bones…warm bass line, nice clear instrumentation. This is a duet with the actress Ann Magnuson, done in the same style as ‘Traveling Light,’ where male and female sing back and forth to each other. I’ve probably heard this song a few dozen times in the past, but it’s never caught me like ‘Traveling Light’ did. Traveling Light on Tindersticks II is such a great song that this one seems slight by comparison. Violins bounce lightly in the background, come on stronger during the break. You can’t not enjoy the Tindersticks style of duet though.

Bearsuit…just a short organ sound, recorded and played backwards. Very quiet. There’s only a few lyrics which Staples repeats over a few times. “I’ve been out all night / Get in at dawn / And I’ve still got honey / Dripping from my claws / I’m a tired hungry bear / Spoiled and sleepy / Her fingers on my zipper / She pulls it down slowly / I’m not ready.” The keyboard sound has two distinct parts, just short lines bouncing between each other in a very odd way. It’s a strange mood piece, but doesn’t amount to much.

(Tonight) Are You Trying To Fall In Love Again…faster beat. Decent tune. More strings play counterpoint to the vocals. There’s a light rhythm here, with quite pretty violins. Then a stronger cello/violin section that sounds very much like Electric Light Orchestra. The main lyric is what you see in the title. Not sure what he’s really trying to say here though. The way he keeps singing that line to a woman almost sounds accusatory; “Are you trying to fall in love again?” as if to mock her.

I Was Your Man…great chorus on this one, another light song, with a brush-beat, light high hat, and those bell-like organ tones that Tindersticks own. Love the chorus here: “You’ve got a smile that never reaches your eyes / You wanna try and do something right / So take me home tonight / Turn out the light / You’re just alone in the dark.” It’s quite sad sounding, pensive, pitying. The chorus is a really pretty, almost familiar melody. Again this is a fairly subdued kind of song. Just like Sides One and Two, Sides Three and Four start with a bluster and slowly wind down…like curtains.

Bathtime…uses the low end of the piano or bass to provide a deep, almost grinding, reverberant pulse. There’s other sounds here. I’m trying to place that sound, the instrument, it sounds so familiar, like, this is almost a soul song. “I’ve been wading through it / Don’t you know it’s up to my neck / And it won’t be long / Before it’s over my head.” This is a great tune and works well with the propulsive bassline. It reminds me a lot of certain tracks by Josh Rouse on his album 1972, but that’s only because that’s a white soul album too. There are strong hints of soul music here, snippets of thin brass. It’s a goodie.  I know this song from Donkeys 92-97, the first compilation of Tindersticks singles that came out in 1998, which I played a lot way back then.

Walking…this is really pretty. No drums or guitars, only a low hovering organ, some twinkling keyboards, a few faint piano notes and faint strings. It slowly builds towards the end of the song. The music and lyrics are a kind of salve of sorts for a damaged relationship. There’s hints and echoes of dissonance coming in later in the song, scraped strings, brief moments of distant feedback, and that insistent three note piano line, playing less like an instrument and more like an electronic beeper, like a digital appliance announcing the timer is up.

Click once to expand, again to magnify

I feel a postscript is in order because I don’t think I’ve done this album justice in my introduction. Close listening is always a rewarding experience. On the one hand, this is not quite as string-drenched as I’d thought. On the other hand, it doesn’t utilize anywhere near the same broad range of sounds and noises as the previous two albums, although having said that, it’s still quite inventive compared to your average indie fare. The next thing is that where I said this album was somehow more “commercial” than its predecessors, that’s just plain wrong. This is quite low-key in places, with more than its fair share of mildly experimental pieces, and perhaps even more mournful that anything that’s come before. The earlier albums were dramatic and wretched and dissonant and majestic, whereas this is quietly understated. However, while Sides Three and Four don’t quite carry the same range of great memorable tunes as Side One, overall, this is still a worthy collection.

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About Alan Bumstead Vinyl Reviews

Alan Bumstead is a music fanatic who humbly adds confusion to the world with a string of album reviews written during real-time-listening in a stream-of-consciousness style, then edited for spelling, punctuation, flow and grammar. Apart from an additional introductory paragraph, the writing is improvised in time with the music. There is no re-writing. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- In his book Moving To Higher Ground Wynton Marsalis says, "Because jazz musicians improvise under the pressure of time, what's inside comes out pure. It's like being pressed to answer a question before you have a chance to get your lie straight. The first thought is usually the truth." I like to think that's what Alan Bumstead's all about.
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