Tindersticks, Claire Denis Film Scores 1996-2009, 2011

Ah, the curse of completism. I already had a copy of Nenette et Boni but this boxset comes with that soundtrack plus five others ranging across five long playing records only one other of which had already been released, Trouble Every Day. I’d never paid any attention to these in the past. Listening right through to White Material say, or Vendredi Soir which is not an altogether unenjoyable prospect, I do wonder who makes a point of listening to this kind of music for pleasure. But then it’s no different from certain kinds of music in the ambient genre, I suppose, Marsen Jules say, or Eluvium, and actually, when you really listen to it, at night with the candles on, there’s quite a lot going on in your imagination, a whole movie in fact. I mean, I don’t sit here and come up with my own visual interpretations to go with the music, but at the same time, I do hear some form of a narrative.

Having said that, there are times when filmic music can seem like a cliché. With White Material for example, I felt I could be listening to the soundtrack to any old European film from the last fifty years, something serious and moving and laden with misery. Each soundtrack takes up a theme and weaves a thread through and around that theme with various motifs moving in and out of focus as the record plays through. Each review here will begin with a quick synopsis of the movie, followed by a running description of the music on each side of the record. NB. I haven’t seen any of these movies, so I only come to this as a Tindersticks fan. In quick summation, the first two of these are the most immediately enjoyable, sounding most like Tindersticks-the-band, while the next four soundtracks exist more as sonic-sculpturing, interesting, but largely devoid of tunes.

Nenette et Boni, 1996

The original album cover

…is a film about Nenette and Boni, a brother and sister who were separated when their parents divorced but who meet up again years later. Pregnant Nenette runs away from boarding school, finds Boni who has a fixation on the wife of a baker couple who are taking care of him, and together they strengthen an emotional bond ‘beyond incest,’ according to one review I read.

The Claire Denis/ Tindersticks collaboration all began, according to the extensive liner notes (which come in a small booklet with the boxset) with Denis repeatedly listening to the Tindersticks spoken word track, “My Sister,” from their second album while making this film. She got in touch with the band and the bond was formed. Consequently this soundtrack opens with a short instrumental version of that song. Says Staples: “The starting point was the musical motif of ‘My Sister,’ and Claire had used ‘Tiny Tears’ during the filming, so that got locked in. From that point, we decided on a kind of palette of sounds – vibes, piano, the organ, drums and bass – and tried to keep it within that kind of combo, reacting to the film.”  And true enough, much of the music does convey that same simple, mellow, shuffly, vibe you hear on “My Sister,” though without the intense build of that song.

Side One opens with “Ma souer” or “My sister,” done as instrumental, a very warm, hopeful sound, lovely melody, simple yet so effective. Tinkly xylophone notes, pretty piano, a rolling kind of rhythm between bass and drums, and Staples’s voice adding a couple of “do doo do doo” effects. It doesn’t last long. A new tune, “La passerelle,” same aesthetic, starts up. Warm bass, plinky piano part, quiet, slightly mournful, very minimal,  almost austere as it reduces to just the bass and hi-hat. This slightly chill tune becomes a motif, here with faintly whining violins bleeding in from the background, barely audible. This is music to slow yourself down with, to totally chill out to. Some concrete noise effects eat away at the melody, like some kind of trolley being dragged along the ground, weird muffled noises. Next is “Les gateaux.” Vibraphone tones, gentle raindrop triangle notes, very soft and dreamy. “Camions” is very similar to what’s been with piano and bass, far off swirly keyboard tones, more daydreamy, staring out the window kind of stuff, the music of distraction, effective for its contrastive piano part—odd signature, sounds improvised, and then fade out. “Nenette est la” uses a ringing organ tone, waltzy bass line to reintroduce the same piano motif as heard earlier. By now, this piece of music is beginning to take on resonances of its own. It’s a tune that hovers forever on the edge of suggestion, the sound of possibility itself. That ends quickly, and we get “Petites chiennes,” a more rhythmical piece, a train-like chug of brushed drums, hi-hat drag, crystal clear, quite beautiful in fact, and watery piano notes, reflections, a cold spring feel, budding, all delicate and fragile kids-gloves kind of stuff. With “Nosferatu,” we’re back to the main motif, the three notes on the piano doing that melancholy pensive thing. Finally we get a song proper, “Petites gouttes d’eau,” with Staples singing: “You’ve been lying in bed for a week now / Wondering how long it will take / You haven’t spoken or looked at her in all that time.” This is “Tiny Tears” from Tindersticks II. Great song. I can’t quite tell if this is the exact same version or not. It seems slower and softer than I remember it. Sweeping orchestra strings bring the drama and emotion. Beautiful.

Side Two begins with a siren, ambulance by the sounds of it, blaring past, before the theme starts up, “Les cannes a peche.” Pretty tune, warm tones, faintly buzzing organ tone, piano, string notes plucked, but not a guitar. The mood is even, balanced, neither up nor down. This ends, a cold piano piece replaces it, “La mort de Felix,” with a softly warbling organ tone, one or two notes on the vibes. The piano notes are all up at the high end; its … how shall we say? … slightly spooked, raises questions and hairs on the neck, a transitional piece perhaps. That ends and the “My Sister” (Nenette) rhythm comes back in, “Nenette s’en va,” with low bass, faint tones humming,  a walking feel, as though the camera is moving through a silent city, following a character through the streets to find out where she’s going. Plinky piano notes add interest. This is replaced by a much slower piece, called “Les bebes,” utilizing amniotic keyboard tones and a few piano notes to create a dreamy piece. Next, comes “Les fleurs,” the main piano motif, like only 3 or 4 notes, to create a thoughtful atmosphere, lasting less than a minute. The final track, “Rumba,” is the longest by far. The bass starts up, once again with that “My Sister” theme coming through. It’s quite rhythmic, the piano playing a slight melody, softly timbred drum and cymbal tones, brushes on the snare, woodblock effects, all very melodic and slow; a slightly chill piano part floating over a warm undercurrent, someone whistling, all very chilled out and jazzy, improvised. At some point a very quiet shimmery organ part starts up beneath everything else and just hovers there, playing simple sustained notes. Notes on a triangle, or very high vibes, pretty piano. It’s all very pensive, conjectural, a touch melancholy, a touch of noir like a chilled out hard-boiled feel to create the essence of mystery, glimpses, narrative by suggestion. Like a dream.

Trouble Every Day, 2001

… is a movie about libidinous sexual aggression taken to some kind of logical slash metaphorical extreme—cannibalism. A young honeymooning couple stay in Paris. The husband seeks out a doctor whose wife shares his predatory illness. Though I’ve not seen it, the movie gets explicitly gruesome apparently. See the blood-spattered cover.

The soundtrack opens Side One with a song the band specially recorded for the movie, using the lyric “Trouble Every Day.” It’s an incredibly subdued, quiet mellow piece with strings, touched with piano hues. It’s typically bleak, which, given the main lyrical refrain, “there’s trouble every day,” is probably not surprising. Fades in with the “Opening Titles,” and fades out. For the most part, Trouble Every Day is a strings affair, which makes it sound quite different to the Tindersicks we heard on Nenette et Boni. “Dream” takes up the melancholy theme on violin, with added birds chirping, while “Houses” continues the same tune/mood, enhancing the sound with piano, light rimshots and bass, for another minute. “Maid Theme” changes the feel, a pipping sound, sparse notes on what sounds like harp, very minimalist, suggestive of someone going about their daily duty perhaps. This continues into “Room 321” where the pipping changes to a shaken maraca, with bass, and we get a trumpet interjecting louder tones. It starts, fades and stops several times. Reminds me of Mark Hollis’s solo album. I find this stopping and starting, almost at random time intervals, a little frustrating. This is the longest track here. Next is “Computer,” with an eerie faint whine in the back, the same loud trumpet groan over that, a repeated note on guitar. The louder volume of the trumpet suggests tension building, and the barely audible whiny squeal in back hints at something disturbing. “Notre Dame,” opens with tolling bells but soon takes up the main theme on violin and harp/guitar, awfully sorrowful, forlorn, and yet incredibly beautiful. Finally, for Side One, we have “Killing Theme,” a more percussive affair, light drums/rimshots, and what…tuba? Very deep groany horn sound, played beneath the main theme, which gets very loud here, and I have to say that main theme is very endearing even if it underlines seven shades of sadness. It’s all very simple, and as I say, minimalist, which I understand is in keeping with Denis’s style of cinema.

Side Two begins with “Taxi To Core” on a long sustained cello bow, higher strings, playing the main theme again for a minute. This leads to “Core On Stairs, Love Theme,” just two bass notes, stepping quietly with lots of space, some light guitar notes, and later that long cello note again with the strings, all terribly slow and dramatic, crestfallen, heartbroken stuff. Amazing when you think about it, how music can suggest ‘emotion’ – what if say, for the last century of cinema, we’d only ever heard this kind of music associated with comedy? Is the ‘sadness’ of a lone violin a culturally constructed thing? Interesting question. “Main theme” leads us back to ultra-minimal, played on harp, faint trumpet whines, sans tune. Next is “Closing Titles” which is a fuller version of the opening song and main violin theme, really pretty, evocative stuff. Hinchliffe on verse duty: “If I want you back / I could get away / Before the sunshine leaves your eyes / But I need to know / How to find the place / Before the days become nights / Before the years become lives” in his richly timbred voice, before Staples takes up the chorus: “There’s trouble every day.” This song is gorgeous stuff, a must-hear for Tindersticks fans. This is followed up with an alternative version of “Killing Theme” (which doesn’t sound any different to what’s gone before). The great thing about the minimalist approach is that you can essentially listen to the same melody over and over without tiring of it. The whole album is basically one long ‘song’ with many different parts. Finally we have “Trouble Every Day” one more time, which does seem a bit like overkill, no pun intended—could hint at the theme of the movie though.

L’Intrus/Vendredi Soir, 2004/2002

L’Intrus (The Intruder) is about an old fella called Louis who needs a heart transplant, goes in search of one and in the process tries to make contact with a long lost son. I guess there’s a metaphor connecting the idea of his body accepting his heart and his son accepting Louis as his estranged father. This soundtrack was composed solely by Stuart Staples who refers to it as “anti-music.”

First track, “Opening,” begins with an old school synth drone, a touch of sheen, with some thick, vibrating, electric bass guitar notes pulsing every few seconds. It’s ominous, and as you sit here waiting for something to happen, you realize that that darkly shimmering tone is waiting for you and those vibrating notes are like your nerves, on edge. “Binoculars” continues the exact same piece of music for another minute, then we get “Running Dogs,” where the synth dies away briefly, but those thick notes keep pulsing darkly and sharply. Within a few seconds, the synth comes back, but also a trumpet, perhaps an electric trumpet, a few shrill notes, slightly discordant and not terribly pleasant on the ears, and horribly mournful, meaningful. It’s dark stuff, and I hate to say this, but there’s something of the familiar about it, by which I mean, a little ho-hum. “Night Drive” is all percussion, an erratic rhythm for like all of thirty seconds. “Horse Dream,” is a UFO-effects preset button on someone’s Sound FX of the 80s, a warbling hum, although when the freaky drum beat from “Night Drive” joins it, it starts to sound really cool, with fragmentary echoing bursts and blats from the trumpet. The UFO hum gets louder and meaner and starts to resemble a police siren, with the faint suggestion of alarms caused by different phases of the wavelength. It’s all rather dire in a grim semi-futuristic kind of way, a colder update of the Eurythmics’s 1984 soundtrack. Next we’re onto “Pusan Snow,” which is grey synth drone again, this time with another more cutting tone humming along, and the sound of dogs barking. Electric powerlines, a cold landscape, a lake, forests, isolation, hiding from the dogs. A low bassline brings some warmth, a few stutters on the snare and fade out…and fade-drone in for “The Purple Sea.” Ach, and our unfriendly pulsing guitar note is back, this time with drums. I have to say that it’s all much grimmer and colder sounding than that suggested by my short plot summary of the movie. Next track “Sleepless Night” = bass, pulsing electric note, faint drums + synth tone. Finally we get “Black Mountain” which is pretty much the same as “Running Dogs” – piercing trumpet, pulse, synth. “Closing” takes the same thing and adds erratic drums which brings more darkly portentous moodiness. The whole soundtrack sounds like an artificially intelligent electric fence and robot guardbox at border control. Not an easy or pleasant listen. Very cold. Hard to enjoy. Best tracks were those with trumpet. ‘Anti-music’ is apt.

Vendredi Soir (Friday Night) is about a girl called Laure who gets stuck in a traffic jam in Paris. She meets some guy called Jean—the two of them are unfazed by the increasing chaos around them. He leads her away down some side streets and they begin to feel some kind of mutual attraction. The soundtrack was composed solely by Dickon Hinchliffe who describes it as an “airy score.”

“Nightfall” uses cello, celeste, piano and strings to create a somber mood in the opening. If this turns out to be a motif, I suspect it’s going to be quietly beautiful once the tune worms its way into my head. As noted by Hinchliffe, there’s no beat here to ground the piece—it was meant to sound like music floating through the traffic. “Le Vestibule” reduces the score to just shimmering violin and celeste, a reflective mood, very delicate, airborn, tremulous. The celeste has an ethereal bell-like sound. “Le Rallye” uses trembling organ tones and staccato violin ‘steps’, brief percussive scrapes of bow on strings, miniscule piano flourishes. The background organ hum gets slowly louder, high strings piercing the soundfield. The mood is neutral, creating anticipation, time running out, quite pretty. That fades, and we get “Falling Asleep” which sounds to me like synthesized strings, washing in like the tide and out again, a few light celeste twinkles, and a hesitant piano part. So far I can’t say I’ve heard a ‘theme’ here which is slightly disappointing – there’s an arbitrary quality to it which renders you groundless. “Jean” is really short, just a few piano notes, whereas “Street Fight” hardly sounds like a fight—it’s all cartoon mouse foot steps—plucked staccato notes on the violin. Ah, so here’s “Laure’s Theme,” with violin and piano. Even if this were forming a recognizable theme, I think the Tindersticks make better soundtracks as a team rather than individually. This could easily be criticized as pretentious classical-lite if you didn’t know it was a soundtrack. “Hotel Love” is next, continuing with plinkety piano notes, a low cello hum, soothing, quiet, fragile, presumably meant to enhance a moving scene. It criss-crosses strings here and there, vaguely pulsing, sweeping in drifting waves. “Footsteps” is all shimmery vibrato, twinkly celeste, bumblebee-type stuff. I guess the piano notes are footsteps, I don’t know. I find this quite boring. “La Voiture” has a bouncy kind of celeste melody, and more high strings hovering. Indeed, Hinchliffe wasn’t joking when he said “airy.” I wish there’d been a stronger melody though because this all sounds eminently forgettable, a little bit too Bambi for my tastes. “Chambre 26” is strings again, that high note, tinkling ivories, lightly sawing bows, and finally “Sunrise,” – well the title itself is more suggestive than the actual music. You can easily imagine  glacial sunlight peering over the horizon, that faint glow becoming stronger, warming the day, leaving us on a slightly sentimental note. Yup, so I thought I was going to much prefer this to Staples effort on L’Intrus, but no, I don’t. Staples’s score for L’Intrus was far more interesting. I don’t think I’ll be pulling this LP out any time soon though.

35 Rhums, 2008

… is the story of a father/daughter relationship. The father, Lionel, must come to terms with the idea of his daughter leaving home soon. After seeing a friend retire from his job, Lionel realizes he must engage the outside world more. His daughter Gabrielle decides to marry Noe, a man she meets in her apartment building. At the wedding celebration Lionel decides to partake in the ceremonial downing of thirty-five shots of rum.

This soundtrack was put together when Tindersticks had regrouped with a new rhythm section in 2008, the year of The Hungry Saw. But Staples had also worked on a collection of children’s music that year, and used an out-take piece as the basis for his work on the soundtrack for 35 Rhums. Indeed, you can hear that quite clearly in this recording, a lighter, more playful kind of sound.

Side One’s “Opening” is quiet flute and strings, softly softly, followed by what sounds like electric piano and ocarina playing a delicate melody that really brings to mind “Endlessly” by Mercury Rev from their album Deserter’s Songs. It has that same dreamy quality and a similar melody. It sounds a little twee to my ears. “Train Montage 1” is much nicer, with a simple guitar arpeggio, warm bass, and a lonely ocarina sound playing a pensive melody, soon taken up by flute. It’s a springy sound, with a positive, light, breeze-through-trees, dozy-dell, country-side feel. Nice, possibly too nice, but we’ll let it slide, slide into the equally dainty “Night Time Apartments” which revives the theme from “Opening” ever so lightly. Vibes and ocarina (I don’t know if it is an ocarina, but we’ll pretend it is). Another quiet, slow, short, thoughtful piece. “Night Train” brings back the bass, pulsing, with soft tremolo effects on the guitar, a spongy rhythm, a few keyboard notes, quietly hypnotic and effective, although I’m not quite getting a ‘train’ feeling from this. I guess the pulsing represents the feeling of being asleep in a cot on a train, the gentle swaying. “Lionel Home Drunk,” uses a low horn sound, vibes and soft bass to create another slightly forlorn piece. Side One is all very short and sweet, over in less than ten minutes. It’s nice, but it’s a world away from the anti-music Staples produced for L’Intrus. This is lullaby-esque.

Side Two opens with “Train Montage 2,” which takes up the theme of its counterpart on Side One. It’s a pretty tune, worth revisiting. There’s not much more to say about it. “Rene’s Death” is another softly contemplative piece on acoustic guitar and ocarina with lots of silent spaces between refrains. Grey day, scenery warped by rain on the windowpane kind of stuff. Not much of a melody. “Lubec” revives the theme on vibes, flute, bass, tremolo, that pulsing feel, the intricate interplay between those instruments suggesting blurred images, someone pottering about on private business. “Mechthilde” returns to super-pensive acoustic guitar and flute, a close, intimate quality that takes in steel-string fret-scrape. Bit dull. “The Necklace’ uses this lightly oscillating high flute sound, very light keyboard tones, super quiet, fading into the ether. And “Closing” revisits the main theme, what I call the “Endlessly” piece, with that loud ocarina sound, flute, this time going full hog into a Disney treatment, and yes, it sounds even more like that wonderful Mercury Rev song. Flute and ocarina echo each other, rhythm tapped on some kind of keyboard, with a touch of exuberance at the ending. 35 Rhums is nice enough, but it’s a far cry from “Vertrauen II.”

White Material, 2009

… is about a woman called Maria who runs a coffee plantation with the help of her husband and father-in-law in some African country on the brink of revolution. She decides to stay there, to help some local rebel and continue harvesting coffee despite the danger.

Of his band’s soundtrack to White Material, Staples says, “It was almost like the film sprang from the earth and that’s how the music started, and it grew from that point.”

Side One of White Material begins with long drawn out horn phrases which reach a point and evaporate, in “Opening.” Soon the low moan of several brass instruments along with a scraped violin sound join and cross paths, yet still pulling us towards its evaporation point to create a mood of mysteriousness. “Bus Vision 1” continues with the long notes, shifting colours and hues, cello, violin, perhaps organ tones, honing in to form a subdued whine, with capricious bass notes. The effect is one of stasis. In “The Boxer” we get a faint tinkle-bell and quiet see-sawing cello sounds. It’s very sedate, lugubrious, short. “White Material” continues the stately flowing lines, subtle bumps, occasionally strident notes which rise, distorted echoes, soft guitar notes. “Children’s Theme 1” brings a flute, guitar arpeggio, piccolo-tone, though low-spirited in mood. It picks up though, getting louder, asserting itself with a drum beat, maybe six instruments now—doesn’t last long, and fade. “Maria And The Boxer,” is back to the tinkle-bell, a single cello line, three guitar notes, very quiet again, fading quickly. “Workers” is pretty much the same kind of thing, low, whining, with a muffled woodblock sound, a few pulsing tones passing like distant sirens, while the last track on Side One, “Andre And The Old Man” is at first barely audible, some faintly whining tones. The music here is all ‘constructed’ and ‘presented’ but there’s a distinct attempt to make it sound like Staples stuck a microphone out the window, recorded the natural environment then recreated that with his palette of strings and horns.

Side Two then. “Yellow Dog” records the tapping of a triangle or wind-chime with lots of empty space, until the cellist draws vibrating, humming whines out of his box, and a violinist adds a few harsher tones over top. It’s all so inert though that its hard to get excited much. The violin does become more intense at the end. “Maria And The Old Man,” is more of the same. This is essentially an ambient kind of music that would be nice to play in the country somewhere, while on holiday, on a balmy hot day, just sitting on the porch staring across some fields. It’s not much fun to write about. “Maria And The Sheriff” uses softly reverberant guitar strums, and … tones, just simple quiet tones of the everyday world—sometimes they shift into a whine, sometimes blurred into a hum. Super-fragile, tissue-like, diaphanous. “Andre’s Death” ticks like a clock, a tinkly tock, and a mechanical sound, while more string instruments hum and drone, whine and moan and groan, building to a warbly pulsating crescendo, with drums, and distortion, becoming increasingly dissonant. “Children’s Theme 2” seeps in on a very high-pitched tone, with lonesome flute again, playing a subtle melody. When the drums start though, I hear for the first time the vague hints of a theme heard earlier, and I respond with pleasure as the piece rises to wake me up. “Attack On The Pharmacy” is the sound of distance, faint distorted guitar tones, a high-end keyboard tone, and drums. The electric guitar moves into the foreground, playing a volley of notes, as a pretty arpeggio plays over it. I am transported to some lonely bleak part of my life in the past momentarily. “Closing” echoes “Opening” (heh) with cello/violin whines and tones and a lightly shifting bass line. The long drawn out passing tones are back, and I swear these are taken from Laurie Anderson’s album Bright Red, it’s very similar. Okay, so that’s over—I can’t say it was much to get excited about. It wasn’t big on melody. I’m sure a lot of thought’s been put into it, but isn’t a lot of ambient or soundscape music much of a muchness? No, I don’t suppose it is if you’re a fan of that kind of thing, which I can be on occasion.

So the first two soundtracks here, Nenette et Boni and Trouble Every Day sounded much more like Tindersticks albums as we know them, strong on melody. The next three LPs though, were very much tied to their movies in my opinion, and to really enjoy them would require either the perfect setting (like I said, a hot day in the country would be nice) or lights out, flickering candles. Maybe some kind of imagination-enhancing catalyst would help.

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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