I bought Simple Pleasure on CD the day it came out, 1999. (Finding it on LP was quite a mission on eBay.) I remember liking it more than Curtains. It’s different; the whole thing has a fresh new vibe. On Tindersticks I they started out interesting, mixing jazz and noise with string-laden pop, but by Curtains they’d eschewed the weirdness for a slightly more easy-on-the-ears sound, although they’d also gotten more dour (if such a thing is possible) so you could hardly cry ‘sell-out’ at them. Nevertheless, this is their most pop album yet. It’s just a little more upbeat and swinging, with only nine songs, half the number of the previous three albums, and noticeably shorter in length. The lyrical themes (romantic hopelessness and loss) are the same as ever. But there’s a soul ‘bounce’ on a few tracks here. Having said that, I’ve been playing this on high rotate for a couple of weeks now and I notice that it only gives that impression because of the first two melodic opening numbers, but doesn’t quite sustain the momentum. Um, so yeah, let’s do the Bumstead on it and find out.
Can We Start Again?…kicks off with a crisp acoustic guitar strum before piano plays a circular melody. The rhythm is carried by what sounds like a handclap in time with drums. The three elements—strum, piano and handclaps—are all syncopated into a catchy rhythm. The vocal comes in; the tune here is nicely melodic. There are snippets of backing singers behind Staples’ voice, then at the chorus part, there’s a counterpoint melody sung by a trio of female back up singers. “Are you ready now?” they ask. “Yeah I’m ready now,” he answers. “Can we start again?” they sing over. The violins are busy playing behind all of this to give it that trademark Tindersticks sound while Staples sings, “The wheel keeps turning round.” This ’round’ thing, the circularity, the inability to do any differently to what’s already been done, is the theme of this record. ‘Can We Start Again?’ opens the record both literally and thematically then. Quite short too, the whole thing sounding like it swings in under four minutes.
If You’re Looking For A Way Out…is a cover of a 1980 disco hit by Odyssey. Here though, Tindersticks turn it into a lush quieter sounding song with vibraphone tones that often feature as part of the Tindersticks sound. This starts off with Staples in softer voice. Then the chorus comes on, and again it’s a great little tune that slowly builds. The drums are lightly padded, as is the quiet but crisp acoustic guitar, then the strings start up behind the voice to add atmosphere. Again, the rhythm here has an upbeat feel. The chorus “Don’t look at the the tears that I’m crying / They’ll only make you wanna stay / Don’t kiss me again cos I’m trying / To keep from running away / Baby don’t run away, baby don’t run away / Say that you’ll stay.” And then a chorus of sorts: “Stop pretending, stop pretending, stop pretending, please baby now,” is the motif that gets repeated over and over in the second half of the song. The backing singers help keep the thing together. The way Staples keeps pleading ‘stop pretending’ along with a slight warble/tremor in his voice starts to sound desperate. Maybe I read it somewhere before I recognized it for myself, but this sounds a little like smooth soul.
Pretty Words…is even quieter yet. Only quiet drums, and a soft organ sound with vocals. Staples uses his forlorn voice here; you can hear the sounds bounce off his throat, but can’t really hear the detail of the syllables and consonants. This builds up and there’s a really beautiful hum of backing singers joining in on “Oh those pretty words / Oh those pretty words.” The organ line builds and starts winding its lush tones through the vocals. It seems like a fairly simple song, subdued and mellow but intense at the same time. Doesn’t grab you immediately. And coming after the first two poppier numbers, this initially seems quite low key. Slow fade.
From The Inside...is an instrumental. Much faster, organ, drumstick on the rim of the snare, swirly organ motif, quite melodic. Long instrumental build to a really catchy bass line, and that Moog synth with vibraphone makes this quite a kickin’ track. The whole thing sounds like old Tindersticks too, not the noisy Tindersticks, but this sounds like it could be a great James Bond theme song or something that sort of rises up, floats down like a carpet, and then takes off again. Quite short actually, maybe three minutes tops. Great little number.
If She’s Torn…slows things down again, to an organ line that sounds like it’s coming from under the ground. Vibraphone, very mellow vocal. “Gotta sit now / Gonna sit and watch the night fall / There’s nothing more / It takes your breath away / There’s so much to carry around / But she’s torn, hurt not a stitch for me / Give her what she needs and hurt not a stitch for me.” Again, Staples’s voice is more instrument here than lyricist. His voice is so deep in places that the deep throaty sounds vibrate notes on the tune but the words are mumbled. This one builds a bit but never to anything too dramatic. I like that organ sound though, the way it trembles low and deep, quake-like. The lyrics sort of circle around which is a recurring feature of quite a number of Tindersticks lyrics and melodies—complex melodies that catch up with themselves or lead into their tails which match up with their heads. Staples also does it lyrically where the words at the end of a line will meet up quite naturally with the words at the beginning. This one is a mellow affair though.
Before You Close Your Eyes…now we’re getting more into what I think of as soul territory. This has a real danceable rhythm track and horns, yes, it’s those horns that give this a Motown feel. The bass line is quite prominent here, while strings punctuate the opening sequence. Then Staples’s voice comes in, a pleading style reminiscent of Bryan Ferry’s smooth emoting which coasts over the tunes, and the strings play the same lines that were played by the horns earlier. It’s all kind of unassuming, and therein lies its quiet understated power. A shimmering organ hovers in the background. “I never cry for our love, I never cry” is the chorus, and then, “I’m so cynical / It’s in my face / It’s just the bird I caught / Leaves its taste hanging round round round.” Note again the proliferation of ’rounds’ in these lyrics. That organ sound is very similar to the one on Laurie Anderson’s song “Freefall.” I know that sound well. Chorus comes back, backing female singers join in, strings support and add drama. Horns play their part. The bass line carries the main melody, not dissimilar to the bass line of Radiohead’s “Airbag,” although here it’s continuous. Bassline drops away, and the funky guitar line that’s been there all along is suddenly revealed in its naked glory. This is definitely one of the best songs here.
(You Take) This Heart Of Mine…opens quietly, just organ, and rimshot, with tap tap tap on the high-hat, like “Pretty Words.” There’s a violin shimmer, briefly punctuating gaps between words, which I think again, might be a trademark sound of soul music. A quick squiz at the lyrics, and I see its quite oblique, definitely a desire song. There’s some girl with eyes that pulls at his heart, but seems that all it does is make him feel lonely. I like that actually. I’d say anyone can understand that feeling. The song remains at a similar emotional level throughout, just circling, not swooping in any particular direction.
I Know That Loving...real quiet opening, just quiet organ, and drum, and desperate sounding voice. This is a killer song. You can almost tell this is gonna build. There are some vibraphone stabs, then a female vocal comes in singing, “There are feet that have never been walked on / Hands that have held no blame / Eyes that have never cried angry tears/ A face that never felt that shame” behind Staples desperate plaintive emoting; “Its just that quality of forgiveness / Forgiveness is what I need / If I could only get out of the water / If I could only get myself clean.” The strings build in the background, and the female voices sing the backing chorus, and you can feel the build-in-progress. Horns stab the gaps in the rhythm, Staples’s voice gets more and more desperate, and the strings still do their melodic swirl thing, but they’re starting to sound weird, and the voices and lyrics just keep going round and round. I love this song. It’s a total melding of form and feeling. Fade out. Nice effects with the horns. Great song.
CF GF...drums and piano. “There’s a need in me darling / For you that I can’t tell / The hole that’s inside me / That drains as it fills” he starts off, which is reminiscent of that wonderful song “Travelling Light” on Tindersticks II. A male backing singer intones the chorus, “Make you cry / Tell you lies / Never say goodbye” over and over beneath the piano and Staples’s lyrics. Then the two men’s voices meld together although not in perfect time, and he just sings on and on with the piano playing the melody, and it totally works. I dig that kind of repetition where the words take on a whole new meaning after they’ve been sung for the tenth plus time. These things he says he won’t do are obviously exactly what he has been doing repeatedly. And the circular thing is in force here; “Here we go again / I’m running around.” Thus what all these ‘circularities’ demonstrate is the overarching epistemology of the entire Tindersticks oeuvre; he’ll go on making the same mistakes over and over again. Nothing ever changes. Some saps just can’t ever get it right. But that’s not quite right either. What has changed is that by the fourth album, he can at least deal with it by singing about it.
Yes, this is another nice album. It’s not as ‘big’ as I had remembered it. Which is to say it’s more understated and subtle than I’d thought before I started this review. The three or four bouncier soul numbers have resonated in my memory across the last ten years more than the others, but that’s always the way. Anyway, this is distinctly less ‘arty’ than the first two albums but with the soul flourishes—the occasional horn section and all the backing singers—Simple Pleasure introduces us to a new side of the Tindersticks, signaling a new direction from an older, not necessarily wiser, but definitely a little less fractured collective psyche, here on in. Something of the swing vibe would remain for their 2001 effort, Can Our Love…