The first thing to note about Falling Down A Mountain is the departure of three original members, whose places have been filled by chaps who’ve nudged the band just a tad into a looser, groovier direction – one that we haven’t heard since the Simple Pleasure / Can Our Love… period of 1999-2001. This time it’s jazzier and dirtier and Stuart Staples’s vocals are noticeably looser, more freewheeling and upbeat. He even seems to scat on some songs. The vibe too – only on a few songs, but just enough to make a difference to the overall effect – is much less stately than The Hungry Saw. In fact it’s almost danceable in places, which, for The Tindersticks, is saying something. This is good. This is all anybody wants from their favourite bands – for them to move forward, to change, but to do it in manageable increments and to do it without conforming to some pre-conceived idea of what the fans want or what might sell.
Every review of this album you can find on the net will mention how the eponymous title track sets up a loose avante-jazz style that fails to take hold over the course of the ten tracks. It is true that the opening track is so good that you inevitably feel some kind of disappointment that they don’t follow through with it on the rest of the album. It sounds both new but also harks back to those noisy jazz pieces on the first two albums. Other than that, we do end up getting a collection of tracks that remind me a little of Waiting For The Moon, in that there are several Tindersticks set-pieces here. A mournful piano ballad, a male/female duet, a piano instrumental, an organ instrumental etc, meaning that the album doesn’t quite hold together as a solid album statement. As far as I’m concerned, the best albums are always the ones that cohere from start to finish. The first five Tindersticks albums achieve this admirably. The next three don’t quite. Falling Down A Mountain has an aesthetic you can hear in the title track, ‘Harmony Around My Table,’ ‘She Rode Me Down,’ ‘Black Smoke’ and ‘No Place So Alone,’ but five tracks is not enough to give the whole album a feel, especially when the ones in between are such light airy things. Enough waffle from me. Despite everything this is still an enjoyable outing from one of my favourite bands. Bumstead, launch the tonearm already…
Falling Down A Mountain…opens with lots of echo, an oddly jaunty bass line, a warbling trumpet, some neat percussion, woodblock, tambourine, squealing brass. These all come in quite quickly so that within thirty seconds you’ve got a totally cool vibe going down. The most noticeable of these at this stage is probably the catchy bass line, then it’s the trumpet parts which call to mind mid-sixties Miles Davis. Various brass parts echo and groan in the background, then Staples starts up with a repeated line, “Baby won’t you come on / Baby come on,” and then it’s “Falling down a mountain” which leads into “Baby won’t you come and baby catch me.” These three lines get repeated like a round, sort of tumbling over top of each other. Then it’s something like “Said she was riding on a fountain / Falling down a mountain,” in a kind of call and response style. The first voice is enhanced or there are two voices. The guitar part is really insistent giving the song a sense of wild urgency, then there are these Coltrane-like squiggles and blurts and blasts of trumpet. All the parts fill up the available sound-field without ever overwhelming it. The bass line never really lets up so that the whole song really just sounds like one chord repeated, but what a chord. This reminds me a lot of Arthur Russell’s ‘The Platform On The Ocean’ – it’s very similar – three vocal lines repeated over top of a weird, trippy soundscape that surges and falls and swells. I love this stuff.
Keep You Beautiful…is a complete change of mood. Just a soft drum beat, with a soft guitar part. “It was up to me / To keep you beautiful.” This is one of those quiet, delicate Staples vocals. There’s some pretty vibraphone notes. The melody is a slight thing which suits the sense of whatever the lyrics are about, although to be honest it’s hard to catch anything clearly other than the words “so beautiful.” The song almost floats, it’s so soft and pillowy. I would say it’s ‘beautiful’ but that almost seems like a cliché. Songs like this, when placed after a noisy opening track, often take a few spins before you start to really notice them. Otherwise they drift by and the next one starts up…
Harmony Around My Table… “I found a penny and I picked it up” – much louder, with handclaps, a full band sound, a jaunty melody. The handclaps are what makes this song—gives it a totally free vibe, and when everyone starts singing “La la la la la la lah / Na na na na na na nah,” you want to join in with the chorus: “I get some harmony around my table.” Then the music all drops out, Staples sings his chorus, music fills up all the gaps, the whole thing seems to pick up speed and volume, then the weirdest thing happens on the vocal. His timing sort of goes all awry, which he does on purpose, but it’s quite a unique effect. And then it just gets cooler and cooler when Staples starts scatting, “Echo co deko deko / She’ll never let me go,” and his vocal just gets looser and wilder. Love this song. Seems to be about a guy who has no luck most of the time singing about a day when things go right for a change.
Peanuts…slows the pace right back down again to a quiet piano. Mary Margaret O’Hara starts singing “They say you love peanuts,” and later Staples replies, “Yeah I love peanuts / I know you don’t care that much / Yeah I love peanuts / And I love you,” and she: “So I / I love peanuts too.” There’s a repeated piano note holding the whole thing together. Staples starts singing in one of his deepest voices. “It hurts with such exquisite pain” and she: “I feel that pain too,” then together, “And in those moments / When the world comes between us / I’ll throw a peanut / Into the stars / And we’ll stop for a moment / And we’ll think of each other / Cos I still love peanuts / And I still want you.” Then we get a harmonica as if we’re actually outside on a starry night. “I’m sad in the morning” sings O’Hara, “I’m sad in the evening / I’m sad now all the time / With no news from you.” It’s quite a bleak song, and a lot of reviews I’ve read really seem to like it. I’m going to be contrary man and say quite honestly that this song irritates me. I find the tone and melody to be trite, and I find the “I love peanuts” thing really banal. I don’t know why. It doesn’t wash with me. I mean the two things do actually come together – the light melody, the plaintive singing and the lyrical content, but in a way that makes me want to bang my head against a wall. A love/hate thing I guess.
She Rode Me Down…starts off saying “She rode me like a train” and the song has an insistent train rhythm with a kind of flamenco feel to the guitar, makes it sound like cowboys and Indians. Flutes and brass play that kind of rising train-whistle blast-type noise you often get on train songs (see my discussion of ‘Tourist Point of View’ on the Duke Ellington’s Far East Suite). The rhythm section is superb here, as is Staples despairing vocal, which mostly consists of “She rode me / She rode me / And she rode me.” There are other strange additional sounds employed to give this a dramatic feel as if we’re watching cinema. The song seems a bit repetitive but then that’s the nature of train songs, and I’m a huge fan of those. This is a goodie.
Hubbards Hills… The Hungry Saw’s Side One opened with a piano instrumental and closed with an organ piece. They reverse that formula here and put it on Side Two. ‘Hubbards Hills’ opens with a pulsing organ note, a deep pulsing bassline, and creepy atmospherics. Quite cinematic, long keyboard sounds, light guitar part, violin shimmers, sort of haunted house type stuff. What’s ‘Hubbard Hills’ I wonder? Wikipedia says it’s “an area of natural beauty directly to the west of Louth, Lincolnshire, England – a glacial overspill channel from the last ice age.” But I get the feeling some kind of crime has happened here. Next we get a moody trumpet piece, a shimmering organ line, and everything comes together as the volume rises. The whole thing sounds like a group of pallbearers carrying a coffin into a cemetery. Someone died here, but how and why?
Black Smoke…is almost rock’n’roll. Strong guitar figure at the start, beeping organ line, much louder than the previous track. “I got shot down” sings Staples, “I told myself I was / Greedy for it / I went down to the river / But the river’s drowned / I went down to the river / But the river’s choked / In black smoke.” Then we get a backing chorus of “Black smoke / Black smoke.” There’s a real graunchy kind of bass line. I love the vocal here, Staples singing along with the singers who keep chanting “black smoke” while his vocals start getting shouted out in a semi-random matter. There’s all manner of noisy brass and god-knows-what moaning and squealing in the background. This song sounds like the equivalent of a pair of lungs choking to death on cancer. It’s sort of dark and rocking and totally cool. I dig it.
No Place So Alone… oh man, and this is another goodie, also in that looser sort of vein. What it is – is the way Staples sings on the one hand, but it’s the quality of the vocal recording too. It’s like they’ve increased the treble on his voice or turned the bass right down, so that we get a different edge of his voice, a more Dylanesque kind of edge. He sounds twenty years younger: “…whispers / Baby come back to bed / And the sun shines / The birds singing / The magnolia is in bloom.” I have no idea what the song is about – too hard to catch the words. There’s a heavily treated guitar part that starts shimmering over the top of everything else, a carnivalesque kind of noisy organ sound, and the whole thing stammers to a halt. It’s intense stuff in the classic Tindersticks style. Love it.
Factory Girls…a slow piano ballad with an exquisitely beautiful tune. A guitar joins in. I know a lot of reviews have praised this song. The piano part makes the song – it’s gorgeous. “Is it the girl in the street? /…/ Is it paris in the spring? / Is it any of those things / No it’s the wine (wife?) makes me sad / Not the love I never had.” One of Staples’s bleakest vocals. “It’s the friends that I lost / Were you the one left to carry the cost? / Is it time falling away / Is it the things you haven’t done today? / No it’s the wine makes me sad / Not the good times that I’ve had.” Then the piano/vocal/guitar thing breaks off and the rhythm section starts up. Something about the girls from the factory. I can’t quite catch the vocals after that – the music drowns out the clarity of his voice. But it keeps building, getting increasingly dramatic, louder, harder beat, very much like old Tindersticks used to do. That all stops and we’re back to the piano and guitar. The melody is sad and dreamy, looking out the window at the rain kind of stuff.
Piano Music…opens with whining strings, faint piano notes in the high registers, strings build, get louder, bass line carries the melody. I do like those dolorous piano notes sort of sounding like dripping water, really high up, and echoey, and the melody they start playing is really pretty. But: there’s something a bit sappy about this track. It’s the strings – they swell and crescendo for a while but then the whole thing goes bloody Bambi on us, smooth and soft-focus, and you start to wish they’d left this for one of their soundtrack albums. It gets weirder, a drumbeat starts up, the tension heightens and then … gets released like a raging waterfall into a dozy dell, and we get the Bambi scene again, and then it goes positively Disney on us, and you’re like, come on guys, why torture us with this? It does have a pretty cool tune, but it’s a terrible way to end the record in my opinion. It leaves the album on a strange note about a million miles from the avante-jazz opening track. Leaves you feeling confused, unsatisfied.
So, mostly this album is defined for me by the five songs I really like, the faster more upbeat numbers, which is not to say I don’t like slower, moodier Tindersticks, just that I find the constant changing of moods a struggle to get comfortably through. It sort of jerks you around a lot like your ears are puppet-things tied to strings of sound. It’s almost like the songwriters feel they ought to do Tinderstickian things … so as to achieve what? Keep old fans? No, this album would have been a classic in many’s eyes if they’d kept that looser jazz vibe flowing through the whole thing. One can only hope they go all out on the brass section for their ninth studio album … but then it’s not about what the fans want, is it :)