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Falling Down a Mountain

[4AD; 2010]

By ; February 22, 2010 

Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOG

Consistency, medieval historian David Carpenter claims (and if he isn’t relevant to a review of a well established indie rock outfit then I don’t know who is), can be sitting in an armchair. In the context of medieval British kings, I assume he meant that if you are consistently bad, or leave no variation in your work, this can be counterproductive. Stuart Staples, Tindersticks’ frontman, would make an excellent medieval king.

Tindersticks started out with two eponymous albums (with the suffix of I and II added by fans for reference) that were lengthy, sprawling numbers featuring mumbly vocals, cracking guitar lines with rough edges, and Staples also showed his prowess for orchestration, knowing just the right moment for a soaring string accompaniment to compliment his tender, literary lyricism. Since then the Sticks (as I’ve decided to dub them) have branched out, making shorter albums but with the band ever changing, venturing into the realms of soul and jazz. Indeed, it was only a matter of time before Tindersticks were writing moody instrumental pieces for Clare Denis’ films, the latest of which being the boring 35 Shots of Rum – shame about having to sit through 100 minutes of unadulterated arthouse pretentiousness, but at least I was treated to a decent soundtrack. Staples even threw in a couple of solo albums for good measure, too.

It is quite clear from my chance encounter with Staples & Co. in the acoustic tent at Glastonbury last year that if, as the title of this album suggests, he has been Falling Down a Mountain, he may well have reached the bottom before this album was made. He constantly laments lost love and I like to think Staples is nursing his wounds at the bottom of this metaphorical mountain with some bandages in one hand, and some rubbing alcohol in the other. And a harmonica in his mouth because I left no room for a guitar in that metaphor. Talking of alcohol, we’ve stumbled upon, alongside women, another possible element in Stuart’s downfall. “It’s the wine that makes me sad,” croons the gravelly-voiced antichrist, “not the love I never had”. The two combined can have rather depressing consequences. And doesn’t he know it. This isn’t the first Tindersticks album either that has featured a male/female duet. “Peanuts,” the slow-burning track about love (and maybe the cartoon dog and/or his fondness for bar snacks), is an absolute cracker, with a terrific Antony Hegarty-esque wobbly voiced performance from Mary Margaret O’Hara. Staples knows it’s a winning formula and does well to leave it nestled near the album’s midpoint.

It’s a shame that after such a strong four opening tracks the album peters out into a distinctly average affair, including the kind of stuff that Staples can knock out in his sleep – inconsequential instrumentals and some sloppy songwriting aplenty. It’s the opening jam of the first track, sharing the name of the album, that leaves an impression most, starting with a sophisticated bass riff, an instrument that is not usually prominent in a Sticks mix but makes a welcome addition. It doesn’t matter that the jam goes nowhere, it’s good to see Staples still has sparks of invention, albeit a few flickers rather than a full-on shower of ingenuity. The highlight of the album is clearly the so-fragile-it’ll-break-if-you-even-look-at-it “Keep You Beautiful,” which allows the best of Staples’s lyrical wrangling to collide with such delicate and well-constructed countermelodies that it’s almost like you’re in the room with Staples, semi-conscious, tears streaming down both of your faces, sharing that bottle of whisky.

This cannot hide the fact that there’s no real structure, coherence, or theme to the album. It does just feel like a collection of songs put together in a clumsy order. Odd, considering they managed to organise the 20-track epics of their earlier work into something that had a distinct beginning, middle and end. It’s ironic that their suave overall vision for an album has been lost, considering I’ve always had a fantasy of Staples penning a James Bond theme – he really does fit the bill for one. In his current shape, he’s probably missed his chance. And really, who wants a song sharing the horrors about relationships with women that are so harrowing that they could possibly turn you gay? I don’t mind – I love the stuff – but it’s possibly not appropriate to open another one of 007’s adventures which inevitably end up with him getting the girl.

Except On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.


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