Though I arrived in Hong Kong at the beginning of 2008 and saw The Hungry Saw LP sitting in a local record shop, I wouldn’t pick up a copy until late 2010. No, you shouldn’t judge a record by its sleeve design, but I did, unfortunately. That simple drawing of a saw slicing through a heart put me off for some reason—it just seemed lame and I foolishly assumed the contents would be too. After playing this album a lot throughout 2011 I’ve grown to love it, far more than 2003’s patchy Waiting For The Moon, which, despite some great songs, sounded too much like the Tindersticks trying to sound like The Tindersticks. But then, in a way, that album was a summing up of sorts.
Stuart Staple’s collaborative songwriter from the 2003 album, Dickon Hinchliffe, appears to have left the band in the interim (along with two other members), so instead we have several songs written here by original member David Boulter, solo or in collaboration with Staples. We still have the basic band plus numerous side musicians on the usual array of instruments such as trombone, flute, trumpet, saxophone, violin, cello and bass clarinet. Let’s be clear here – this is a nice album. I have to admit that I gave up on the Tindersticks for about eight years. This album neither sounds like they’re mining their back catalogue nor trying a new direction, but rather settling for just being great at what they do, which is to write good songs and keep ‘em interesting with inventive arrangements and extra-rock instrumentation. Good-o, must be time to start sawing through that vinyl…
Introduction…is a piece for solo piano. Various iterations of the same figure are played, sparsely at first, along with a lone synth note and a repeated high note (which also sounds like the top end of a piano). It’s impossible not to fall for it. The chord changes are gorgeous. So what kind of mood is this? It’s pensive, melancholy, and yet hopeful, nostalgic, and mostly conclusionary, a word I just made up now. Goes for about 2~3 minutes. Various other organ sounds join in here and there. It’s a slow movie of a song, one of those films where the plot narrative stops for a good five minutes while the camera follows one broken character around a desolate European city, after some terrible but beautiful tragedy of lost love.
Yesterdays Tomorrows…big rich heavy drumbeat, lovely guitar rhythm on the offbeat, like reggae. The song seems to be saying there’s no such thing as the past or future. All yesterdays and all tomorrows are here, present, now. All the events that have ever happened and that ever will be are rolled into today: “All those days, those days that follow us home / They peer through our windows / And they’re here? / … / They crackle under our pillows.” Magnificent tune, not too complicated. Big blasts from the brass section. Very strong kind of song that takes place between its powerful rhythm guitar and the pounding drumbeat. Staples’s voice is in top form here, recorded forward in the mix. “And every moment burned with that fire.” It gets very dramatic, builds. Tune is gorgeous.
The Flicker Of A Little Girl…is about as close to straight forward pop as Tindersticks have ever gotten. But it’s a sumptuous mix of guitars, tambourine, organ, piano, and there’s a male vocal backing that goes “woo hoo hooooo,” which is a neat touch. Seems to take the topic of the previous song “yesterdays” in order to look at the past, a nostalgia for a girl, or a lament for things lost, things you can’t ever get back, hence the evanescence in the title – the “flicker” of a little girl. “I still see that light that is shining through those tired eyes / Could those eyes see what was coming then?” Sometimes I feel that the Tindersticks are The Cure in a parallel universe, what The Cure might have become if Robert Smith had learned to temper his ridiculous post-Wish excesses.
Come Feel The Sun…just a simple piano line accompanying Staple’s voice. “Why don’t you come out / The guards have gone / They’ve forgotten their purpose / And shuffled along / So come feel the sun.” Very soon this gorgeous cello plays an interweaving melody with the vocal – I think it’s singularly one of the most beautiful cello parts I’ve ever heard on a Tindersticks album. The song is too short. It’s over and leaves you wanting more. Brilliant. Seems to be sung to a male friend damaged by something, exhorting him to “exact your revenge.”
E-type…has a deeply pulsating rhythm, while the brass section play a repeating riff and female vocals chant non-words in the background. I googled ‘E-type’ and came up with (1) the stage name of a Swedish musician called Bo Eriksson (2) a model of Jaguar (3) a brand of dictionary translation software. Hm, and all this time I’d thought it referred to the instrumental effect that creates that pulsating sound. Again, the tune is exquisite here. The vibe, the sumptuousness, the melody – it all reaches for something utterly unique. It’s an instrumental, except for those wavery female vocals that sort of meander in a haphazard way reminding me of Sun Ra’s “Space is the Place.” Gets quite noisy as the volume builds along with the increasing number of instruments being added in, specifically the brass section, trombones, trumpets and sax. Fantastic stuff. Works for me.
The Other Side Of The World…just a lone guitar line, and a close mic’ed Staples. Love the opening words here: “On the other side of the world is an island / Shaped like a woman / And I know this place / From there, there is no escape / Y’know she held me / Not too tight for she would break me / Not too loose for I would slip away / To the other side of the world.” Again I am reminded of The Cure, lyrically – this time ‘Plainsong,’ the opening track on Disintegration. So by this stage all the instruments have joined the mix and there’s a string section dramatizing the mood, along with some awesome little swirls of violin and cello. This is one of those devastating/devastated numbers. Wherever this woman is now, she’s not here, that’s for certain, and he misses her, oh how he misses her. Beautiful.
The Organist Entertains…another instrumental, a moody, submerged kind of bassline with a soft-focus blurred kind of organ-as-piano sound, while strings rise and fall all around the strange jaunty little bassline. Again, I’m not intentionally over-enthusing this. It’s just truly gorgeous. It’s a nice way to end Side One by mirroring that beautiful edge-of-the-world piano piece with this short 2~3 minute organ tune. Great stuff.
The Hungry Saw…and we’re back in the pop mode, with a counted in “1, 2, 3, 4” from Staples before he launches into “Needs must when the devil drives / He’s been driving all the way / He’s got a hungry saw / He wants to tear it all up now.” Another verse and this segues – standard pop song structure – into the chorus: “The first cut is the skin / The second is the muscle / There’s a crack of bone / And he’s at your heart.” So you get the lyrical drift here. Part of me is starting to wonder whether the album is mixed too loud, whether there’s too much compression because some of these songs get a bit messy when you turn the volume up, which is disappointing. Some funny little moment at the end of the second chorus with whooping, cheering and applauding from a few people in the background, and the song winds down. Very catchy.
Mother Dear…another count in, only “1, 2, 3” this time, as a continuous, dreary yet shimmering organ note starts up and some kind of (bowed?) double bass plays an ominous see-sawing rhythm. And Staples repeats the words, “Not so serious” three times, which, as a fan of The Dark Knight, makes me think of that line from the Joker, “Why so serious, son?” In the middle there’s this totally wild thrashing of several almost random-sounding chords on an amplified acoustic guitar. Then we get “Mother dear / The sky is falling through this night / I am crawling around / I need the sound of your heart.” And violins soar over the song, and you wonder who’s died here. With that duh-duh duh-duh rhythm thing, it’s a lovely morbid little number.
Boobar Come Back To Me…acoustic guitar, tambourine, and a Staples vocal that builds line by line, up and up, in slowly ascending circles that sounds like it’s going to take flight, but instead, the drums stop and we get this wistful chorus line: “(She sang) Boobar come back to me / I know you feel the pain that I feel.” And he, (Staples) seems to be playing the part of Boobar here, like a real nineteenth century romantic, a sailor traveling the world. The tune is beautiful, and now the song builds its noisy dramatic exciting verse piece back up, louder and louder, this time with a male backing vocal repeating Staples’s lines “We wanted so much more (We wanted so much more) / We wanted something else (We wanted something else)” as they take you up right up to the edge of the cliff and … suddenly, like Wile E. Coyote, your legs are left spinning in mid-air as all the instrumentation drops out and Staple’s plaintive vocals sings the Boobar line again. Absolutely stunning.
All The Love…is a much slower number, opening with a ringing bell sound and a solo acoustic guitar part. Staples’s voice is mixed very up front on the whole album. On this song it works, but again, I get the feeling compression or something has ruined the sound quality a bit. This is more of that desolate stuff. A female vocal offers some utterly beautiful “oohing” between and beneath Staples’s vocal. “All the love.” Damn, this is yet another hugely devastating song. “All the love inside them / Got locked away for its own protection / For so long it became just a memory.” Can’t quite say exactly who or what he’s singing about, or whether it’s personal. I’d love to know, but instead we get a beautiful world wrecked by withheld love. Might this be a bit OTT? Yes, possibly a bit overcooked.
The Turns We Took…continues the stately pace of the previous song. “Oh the turns we took to get here / But the ending is it so near?” It’s tempting to read this as a song about the road traveled by his band: “But our song is carried on the wind.” This is followed by a wild guitar riff repeating beneath sweeping strings to bridge chorus to verse – the climax of the song. Two or three chaps continue to sing, “Oh the turns we took to get here” as a kind of falsetto chorus in the background, which sounds great. The only criticism I have is that again, it feels as though too many tracks are mixed into the center of the sound field rather than separated more discretely, as if everything’s recorded just a little too loud, so the subtle beauty of those early Tindersticks albums is lost a little. That said, I haven’t really heard a dud on this record.
And so where is “here” for the Tindersticks? To my ears, it’s a kind of ironic joke. “Here” is not a million miles removed from “there” if “there” is Tindersticks I or perhaps just the Tindersticks in the 90s more generally. “Here” was also the title of a Pavement song they covered in the 90s, available on their first collection Donkeys 92-97. This new lineup would continue the Tindersticks excellence on 2010’s Falling Down A Mountain.