I guess a little spiel on live albums is the way to begin. The academic view would be to say they serve only to exist as historical documents. Yes, this band was here on this date and played these songs. You can argue that most albums are ‘live’ in the sense that the musicians for the most part played their instruments for real in a studio. That’s one end of the spectrum. The other is where the whole band are recorded in unison in front of an audience. Sounds like I’m stating the obvious, but the point is, there are a whole range of possibilities in between those two obvious end points. “How live is live?” might be the question. This Tindersticks album is very live in one sense, but it was also set up to be recorded professionally with the foreknowledge that it would be released as an album, which makes it less truly ‘live’ in the fullest sense of improvisatory happenstance. And then it was remixed in a studio three days later.
I’m mincing words, but in preparation for something. This Bloomsbury concert has received plenty of favourable reviews in the past. Part of the reason is the quality of the recording. Everything is in nice balance. The vocal is clean and audible (save for Staples’ s mumbly singing), the orchestra doesn’t overwhelm the songs, and all the rock elements are present and correct, but where others have written about this as though it’s a fully-fledged member of the Tindersticks catalogue, I beg to differ. It draws its material from Tindersticks I and Tindersticks II and plays them completely straight, so the question is – why a live album? I suppose what’s cool about this is that it’s played just prior to the release of Tindersticks II and so that leads me back to my academic answer – historical document. The next thing is that no matter how well the sound engineers have placed their microphones, the dynamics still sound a little flat compared to the studio albums. Even though I am quite the Tindersticks fan I could happily have lived without this LP except that I’ve got unfortunate completist tendencies. At least they throw one track on the end which I’ve never heard before—a b-side from the single of ‘Marbles.’
Everything I’ve said above aside, Bloomsbury shows the Tindersticks just as their star was ascending. I’m going to assume the reader’s familiarity with the first two albums in my writing of this review. Hearing this for the first time only made me wish I could have been in the Bloomsbury Theatre on the third of March 1995.
El Diablo En El Ojo…opens with a nice warm deep bass sound and shimmering organs. Within a minute the atonal violins start scraping fingernails down blackboards. This song has always sounded awfully ominous, desperate, creepy and they go all out to make this sound even weirder than the studio version. There’s a full orchestra rising in the background while several violinists start creating a free noise caterwaul. I have to say this is exceptional for a live recording. Very exciting. Certainly raises the tension. “Cause there’s things you’ve gotta hear of me.”
A Night In…follows the same sequence as Tindersticks II so far. Again, the bass is mixed up quite loud, but not in a ‘boomy’ way. This is a complex piece of music. A searing violin shimmer joins the bass, piano and then the chorus starts up with its wonderful melody. Staples sounds great here, his voice so deep, “I had calluses, not sores / And I’d like to keep them.” The dynamic is a little flatter than the studio version for some reason, perhaps the pace is a little slower such that the joints of the song connecting verse tissue to chorus muscle sound a little weak. Still, with all the string sections coming and going and that neat bass line under it all, this is some impressive feat. It’s not a short song either. “You’re flat on the ground / There’s no further down / There’s no cots to sleep in.” Seems this song is all about a guy who was once homeless arguing with his partner though I’ve never given it that much thought. Who needs to figure out the lyrics when the holistic drama of the piece is so damn magnifique?
Talk To Me…between bass and piano, this song grinds out its rhythm. String sections support. A lone violin starts wailing out of tune. Mostly this song doesn’t have any major changes, the chord structure just goes round and round, until a big dramatic orchestral section in the middle unleashes a wild climax and someone starts plonking a one note ‘melody’ on the piano. Again, this song sounds like another desperate man pleading with his ‘darling’ not to leave him. “You can’t kill this love no / You can’t kill this love.” Boy, what an intense opening salvo. Suddenly piano and violins start screeching blue murder over a backdrop of … ohmigod, this is insane. This would have been incredible to see live. You would’ve needed earplugs. It’s like… what… pop music terrorism? … an emotional horror movie soap opera musical?!
She’s Gone…quietens the mood, at least for the opening. There’s a funny little sound like someone flinging their hands over the strings of a guitar randomly. After a minute the bass and strings starts up. It’s hard to catch the words in a meaningful way here, but Staples’s voice is always mixed up front. “Think she can walk now / Think she can walk.” His voice always has that emotional knife-edge quality. “Took her mother with her / Left town / Took her mother’s eyes / Stole her mother’s heart / It’s a compromise / .. / And she’s gone.” So this time, the girl got away. These are dark, dark songs. The man is always left forlornly pining, though with a dangerous edge in his voice as if he might slit his wrists at any moment.
My Sister…makes a good change of tension from the previous one. It’s almost as if they’re saying here, “relax, we’re only joking.” There’s always been a difficult notion of irony in Tindersticks songs, but it’s only a post-modern ruse; they leave themselves an out-clause in case anyone takes them too seriously. The section in this song where Staples starts talk-quoting his sister’s words, instead of the dreamy bell sounds on the studio version, here we get more alley cat violins. Then the rhythm starts up again, faster, with more and more percussion and parts joining in to add excitement, melody and speed; this song almost becomes a soul-dance number. There’s a neat brass section towards the end. “She said she didn’t want to be cremated.” Complex stuff. A very long song…more contrapuntal activity between string sections, brass, bells, some wild action from the violins; yes, I believe this does manage to outperform the studio version. Truly amazing.
No More Affairs…piano and bass, light snare: “There’s no more affairs / No more fooling around… / … How you gonna find out?” I’m really enjoying the melody of this song. Ouch…someone just caught some violin feedback, too close to the microphone. Mostly it’s the piano providing strong chordal support to Staples’s wavery baritone. You catch snippets of lyrics and it builds a fragmented picture of something hugely dramatic. It’s like he’s trying so hard to convince himself there’ll be no more affairs, or convince her, and we know it’s a hopeless situation, that he’s lying.
City Sickness…ah, always loved this one. I need to rescind what I said in the introduction about this being ‘flat.’ Flat’s not the right word; it is dynamic, but live, its not quite as ‘tight’ as the studio versions, althought the soundstage is very impressive for a live album. The way the strings play off the vocal here is beautiful. I love the ‘high’ part in this song where the violins build to a crescendo and the melody is gorgeous and the whole thing just slots back into its rhythm so perfectly. It’s form, man. The lock and groove, stock and barrel, oiled and slick. Applause. Wish I’d been there.
Vertrauen II…has amazingly fast drumming, while electric guitar notes sustain this kind of tension which is taken up and crested on by a Doppler effect of screeching strings. Forward motion, offkey piano, build and burst violins, freaky, almost ‘painful’ piano notes, grinding bassline, tooting car horns. What is Vertrauen? It sounds like the instrumental soundtrack to a ride on the autobahn through hell. (Actually, it means ‘trust’).
Sleepy Song…low bass and guitar notes play together while Staples sings short phrases in a smoky, late night voice. Someone else sings with him which is a nice effect. This is a very quiet number (so far). Doesn’t really have a tune. The bass/guitar duet together very slowly. “I’m going home tonight / Stay / Turn over / Turn out the light / I’m going home tonight / Stay … / Sleep / I won’t wake up.” Then a viola or cello …oh man, no, the whole noisy choir of them launches a right racket until one emerges on the right note, and the song winds down. Not a very memorable track.
Jism…has a nice four chord circular melody, while an old Korg or Moog or whatever they are, The Doors used ‘em, old organs, plays some cool sounding notes as though they were beamed straight out of the sixties. “See I can only take it out on you / There’s no one else… / See I can only take it out on you / … / You hide these things so well …” and the song builds to its first climax. The tune has a certain kind of circular chordal thing that lurches along but never quite develops into a ‘melody’ – more of an atmosphere and rhythm supporting a lyric like “The deeper I go / The further I fall.” It works once you’re familiar with the song. Actually, not this one per se, but many of the songs here were being heard by the public for the first time. When things get noisy you can hardly even tell this is a live album. It’s such an in-the-moment listening experience. I do wonder if a whole concert of this would be hard to take. There’s always a point in live concerts where I tire and lose concentration.
Drunk Tank…is a faster number with that fast drumming again, and an approaching swarm of wobbly violins and that staccato strings effect. “How you doin’ tonight / I don’t wanna fight… / I know I said I better get home to bed / But I was the one who always stayed up so late.” Ah yes, I know this one but it sounds different. I love the intense bit in the middle when all the scratchy sounds come out and someone plonks away on one piano note at the same speed as the drummer/drama. “There’s no more fist on the end of my arm / Just these arms trembling.” I think this is much faster than the version on Tindersticks I. This is full on towards the end. My wife hates this music. Given the bruising lyrical content of these songs, how ironic is that?
Mistakes…opens with a quiet violin and piano, before the beat starts. “These days I’m only happy when I cannot move / These days I’m only happy when I’m tied down next to you / Not with my strings cut / When I’m flying around / … / When I’m not coming down / Lum da dadum / Dada dum / Dadada dah / Dada dum / Mistakes are made / I know I’ll live with them all my life / Mistakes are made like the one / You know the one.” I might have some of the words a little wrong here. Hard to catch some of the smaller schwa-like prepositions and things. This is a slow one with a couple of nice melodic parts, but not really a singalong. All sounds good though.
Tiny Tears…”I’ve been lying in bed for a week now / Wondering how long it’ll take / You haven’t spoke…mumble mumble.” Songs starts quietly and slowly with that airy organ sound and then builds into its humble but exquisite chorus melody. Did I mention that there are 14 violinists, 6 viola-ists, 4 cellists, a conductor plus dudes on trumpet, trombone, baritone sax and French horn in addition to the main band, who I think comprise six musicians? That’s the orchestra playing that beautiful melody at the crux of the song, and very few of these are short songs either. The whole thing must clock in at a good 80 minutes. So, around thirty-three musicians on stage. “Let them pour out / Pour out an ocean / Don’t let them pour all over me,” only with Staples’s accent it sounds like “Don’t let them pooaaaar all over me.”
Raindrops…starts with stealthy stabs of viola and cello. “Will the love ever come back? / I know I’ve been pushing you away / I know it’s been going on for days / Those awkward little things…[mumble].” This is very slow with a simple melody piece played on piano, but has such little momentum that it might be trying to send the audience to sleep. “It mooches around the house / Can’t wait to go out / What it needs it just grabs / It never asks.” Boy, these lyrics are claustrophobic. Everything’s always stifled and stuffy and mumbly and awkward and sorry in Tindersticks songs. This doesn’t have much going for it really. My guess is that the audience would be straining to concentrate by now. If this is supposed to somehow recreate the idea of raindrops on the roof and evoke sleep, it’s doing a pretty good job of it, except that the violinists aren’t gonna let you nod off that easily. The atonal noise builds and hovers like a swarm of freaky bees. Actually, I find this one a bit of a bore.
For Those…and at last, the finale encore, the only track that’s ‘new’ to me. A quirky little organ line opens this, supported by a medium tempo beat, and Staples sings in a higher register than usual. Music stops while he sings and then joins back in; this has a pretty melody and a jaunty rhythm which does a stop/start thing in time with the vocal parts. “Cheated by my vanity … / …and for those [something].” A live Tindersticks concert is not the best place to try and follow along with the lyrics I guess. Music stops completely but I still can’t catch the words. Something is being tossed away and can’t easily be reclaimed. It doesn’t quite have the full sweep of that Tindersticks grandeur, although the vocal is nice. Staples announces that this is it, and the audience breaks into whistles, applause, hoots and cries. Awesome. As far as live recordings go, this rules.