It can’t be easy; critically-lauded at the start of your career, then just a handful of years later, you’re largely ignored by the music press and almost considered a niche interest. What do you do, exactly? Do you just carry on doing what you were doing before, in the aim of finding whatever it was that propelled you to such lofty heights in the first place? Or do you change completely, hoping that your new-found direction will earn you some kudos for not resting on your laurels?
That’s been the dilemma facing Tindersticks since the late 20th Century, and it’s an extremely unfair position for them to be in. Almost victims of their own success, their opening trilogy of albums (self-titled releases in both 1993 and 1995, and 1997’s Curtains) were irresistible baroque chamber-pop, full of surprises and, unusually, never outstayed their welcome at over an hour. However, the world moved on and since Tindersticks didn’t see fit to re-invent the wheel, the world also largely lost interest. After Waiting for the Moon in 2003, they called it a day, only to return in 2008 with The Hungry Saw, but only half the original band.
History lesson over, what’s Falling Down a Mountain actually like? In a nutshell, it’s a triumph as well as being probably the least Tindersticks-esque (maybe that should be “Tindersticksian”?) album of their career. The core ingredients are still there: Stuart Staples’ polarising, treacle-rich baritone, beautifully haunting string arrangements and the pervading sense of disappointment and loss. However, add to this a willingness to diversify and be imaginative, and Tindersticks are once more extremely deserving of your time.
Take the title-track, for example, which also happens to be the album opener. Fractured percussion gives way to freeform-jazz saxophone and repeated chanting. While Tindersticks may be primarily known for their lush instrumentation, this is stark, spacious, primal and utterly thrilling. Keep You Beautiful is disarmingly gorgeous, creeping in barely noticed on a gossamer-thin riff; it’s warm, comforting and everything the title track isn’t, but equally affecting.
Keep You Beautiful would in fact fit perfectly on a film soundtrack - if you hear it on a montage of the female lead going about her day, it’s pretty clear it’s only a matter of time before our hero gets the girl. Once you’ve noticed how suited to cinema scores this track is, it’s difficult not to put most of this album as backing music to films that don’t even exist. She Rode Me Down is coming soon to a spaghetti-Western near you (when the flute flutters in, it even sounds like Morricone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly), Factory Girls is a tender, piano-heavy ballad that would be an ideal bed for a tale of success against the odds and the unexpected major chords of Hubbards Hills would compliment a tale of courage and redemption.
This may well be damning Falling Down a Mountain with faint praise. Tindersticks’ music has always been broad in scope with a cinematic feel, but it just seems here that they’re maturing into a more well-rounded band. No longer so heavily reliant on the dramatic brooding that characterised much of their early-90s work, they’re in danger of becoming national treasures on this form.
It’s not a complete win for the boys from Nottingham, unfortunately. Falling Down a Mountain is fairly Side-A heavy, with two or three of the later tracks disappointingly unremarkable, where only Stuart Staples’ smoky vocals carrying some non-descript arrangements. Despite this, it’s an extremely listenable record and definitely fit to stand aside their finest work. It’s an impressive achievement seeing as Falling Down a Mountain is album #8 of a career just shy of twenty years and a depressingly large proportion of bands are phoning it in by that point. With another album (a soundtrack to the upcoming White Material) due later in 2010, it appears Tindersticks have gained a second wind and have answered the questions posed above. Forget the press, forget the criticism and forget those who ignore you. When you make an album this good, you don’t need to care.