Monday, March 23, 2009

Tindersticks - Just a simple pleasure?

Tindersticks arrived fully formed with their trademark sound in 1993. Their self-titled debut album defined their sound for pretty much the rest of their career. Vaguely melancholic music but containing sweeping dramatics, and featuring Stuart Staples' slurred croon. When I heard them first it sounded to me like Nick Cave on valium. The Spanish painting on the cover makes one think that something special lies within.

Their first album contains some classic songs, interspersed by moody pieces and instrumentals. It's a masterclass in mood creation, and the opening track Nectar does this perfectly. It's quite an insubstantial song in itself, but it works perfectly to open the album. Impossible to understand the lyrics, but there you go! Sweet Man is broken into 3 parts and spread over the 21 track album. The 2nd part, right in the middle of the album is particularly good, with wonderful lyrics like "I lay awake that night, listening to her breathing, thinking how strange it would be if I awoke and she wasn't there..."

There is a run of classic Tindersticks songs, beginning with City Sickness which for a long time was my favourite of their songs. Driven by a sweeping string section, it swoops in and out capturing urban ennui superbly. It leads into Patchwork which starts with a simple guitar figure and is a wonderful little tune, enhanced by some horns at the end. Marbles follows, which is mostly spoken, vague lines like "you knew you lost her as soon as you saw her, you saw your life as a series of complicated dance steps". The organ-driven music underneath for some reason reminds me of the Velvet Underground. Other tracks include Her which has a spanish feel to it with strummed guitars and mariachi-type horns.

The album is long and initially, somewhat overwhelming. It reminds me of dark, wet nights wandering cobblestoned streets in a small town in France while smoking Gitanes. But the album sets the template for the Tindersticks sound.

They followed this up with another self-titled album. Track 2, A Night In, opens with the line 'I had shoes full of holes when you first took me in' so instantly the mood is set as a continuation of the first album. My Sister follows, which is reminiscent of Marbles from the first album, with an atmospheric tale spoken over some coolly understated music featuring horns, xylophones, piano and none of it ever rising above a gently whisper. Tiny Tears is a little more dramatic. It starts off fairly bare with Stuart crooning over an acoustic guitar before the other instruments gradually arrive, swelling to a jaw-dropping chorus accompanied by strings.

No More Affairs is classic Tindersticks gloom. It feels like the protagonist is sitting drinking in a dark bar. Travelling Light on the other hand is the first of Stuart's occasional duets, trading lines with Carla Torgeson of the Walkabouts. Again orchestral in feel, it's probably their most recognisable song.

They followed this album with Curtains, which was a little disappointing, sounding like a pale imitation of the first 2 albums. Tindersticks-by-numbers, maybe? It was clear at this stage that the band were running the risk of becoming a parody of themselves. Although they sound consistently classy, how many Tindersticks songs could not be used to soundtrack a black and white French movie?

Something had to change and it did. Simple Pleasures was a dramatic change, from the nude on the cover to the the soul-infused music contained within. The first track, Can We Start Again, is startlingly upbeat, featuring handclaps and a jaunty melody bopping along breezily. A dramatic change in direction! The next track, If You're Looking For A Way Out, is a cover of an old soul tune and is rendered respectfully by the group. Staples' vocals are as tender as he gets, with a strong fade-out at the song's end. The rest of the album mines a similar vein, quite a departure from previous albums, full of gospel backing voals, soul horns and strings.

The follow-up album, Can Our Love... kicked off with a slab of old-school Tindersticks. Dying Slowly, from the title to the orchestral dramatics was a return to the Tindersticks I know and love. It's a bit of a red herring as the rest of the album is quite different, and indeed diverse. People Keep Comin' Around is a slightly Doors-influenced song, while the rest of the album is a return to the soul of Simple Pleasures, with arguably stronger songs. Don't Ever Get Tired is a standout with langorous guitar underpinning a strong melody. The guitar in the bridge is particularly effective.

Having got the soul out of their system, around this time they also released a soundtrack album to the harrowing Claire Denis movie, Trouble Every Day. The music is mostly instrumental and stands up quite well as moody background music. The main vocal track, Trouble Every Day is a strong Tindersticks song which stands up with the rest of their catalogue. Killing Theme is also a particularly evocative instrumental. In common with a lot of soundtrack albums there's a lot of 'incidental' music where not a lot happens.

Their next album proper (and last for 5 years) was Waiting for the Moon. The opening song is actually sung by the less distinctive (but more soulful) Dickon Hinchcliffe. The album is quite under-rated, it's kind of an overview of all the different styles Tindersticks have tried. Say Goodbye to the City is more of a classic Tindersticks type song, and is followed up by the wonderful soul song Sweet Memory. Again sung by Hinchliffe, it runs at a snail's pace. 4.48 Psychosis is based on a play of the same name written by Sarah Kane, inspired by the time of night which is apparently the darkest and one is most susceptible to suicide. The vocals are spoken rather than song while the music rages underneath. Most of the other songs on the album are quite lovely, Trying to Find a Home is quite soulful, as is Sometimes It Hurts, a great duet with Lhasa de Sela which builds nicely to a great chorus featuring prominent backing vocals. But for me the strongest song is the 7 minute My Oblivion which features strings, and vibraphone. It's hugely melodramatic and deeply lovely. A complete change of mood descends for the jaunty Just a Dog, then the album concludes with Running Wild, more dramatics enveloped by the string section which becomes more prominent as the song progresses.

Stuart released 2 solo albums, the erratic Lucky Dog Recordings, followed by Leaving Songs, a concept album about departure. It's really not a million miles away from Tindersticks, especially the opening track Goodbye to Old Friends. Most of the rest of the album is a bit lighter and sparser, and is notable for two duets, with Maria McKee and Lhasa de Sela. There is one accapella track, Dance with an Old Man, which doesn't really work.

After a gap of 5 years since their last album, Tindersticks reunited (albeit minus 3 of the original members) for the Hungry Saw. I've never been a fan of bands getting back together, it's seldom as good as the original stuff but Hungry Saw is just as good as their other albums. It starts off very strongly with an instrumental which leads into Yesterday's Tomorrows which is a strong, upbeat, soulful song. It's never going to be quite as intense an album as the first 2 but there is a lightness of touch which is, for want a better word, warm, and some strong songs also. The closing song, The Turns We Took, is really quite special. In a similar vein to Running Wild (the closer on Waiting for the Moon), it's like the end of something more than just a CD. It's highly emotive but on the other hand quite simple.

I finally caught them live in Vicar Street in Dublin in November 2008. There was a minimum of between-song chat but they seemed relaxed and the music was superb. Even the drunken idiot in front of us who kept calling for Tiny Tears didn't spoil the gig (she got chucked out eventually).

All in all, you either get it or you don't with this band. But if you do like their mood you'll seldom be disappointed by any of their music.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Album Review: Radiohead - Amnesiac

Have recently been listening to Amnesiac by Radiohead. Derided as Kid B when it came out, I never got around to listening to it until very recently. Kid A was an album which I struggled with at first but has grown on me enormously to the point of near obsession. The first few bars of Everything In Its Right Place take me into a wonderful, airlocked space.

I'm not a huge fan of Radiohead, Thom Yorke's voice grates after a while and also they are completely overrated, belonging to the canon of bands who seem to defy criticism (Velvet Underground, Smiths, Pixies, Stone Roses, Nirvana etc). This album is possibly more accessible than Kid A. The opening track, Packt Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box, is a thoroughly original piece of music, driven by a wonderful bassline and a great chorus of 'I'm a reasonable man, get off my case'.

This momentum is spoiled a little by the next track, the funereal 'Pyramid Song'. Not a bad song in itself, but the plodding pace of it jars after Packt. And the less said about the next track, Pull/Pulk Revolving Doors, the better. It's kind of a drum 'n' bass experiment with some warped vocals thrown in, minus any melody worth speaking about. You and Whose Army comes as a welcome relief, which starts with Yorke singing over some sparse electric guitar, before the rest of the instruments come in and build to a great little climax. I Might Be Wrong grooves along nicely, leading into Knives Out, the most 'normal Radiohead' sounding track on the album. It's a great tune, all long drawn-out syllables and jangly guitars.

Morning Bell is reprised from Kid A, but with a totally different arrangement. The serene Kid A arrangement is replaced by an almost child-like arrangement. It sounds a little throw-away until you realise that you can hear the lyrics even more clearly as Yorke's voice is right out front, giving more emphasis to lines like 'cut the kids in half'.

It's followed by Dollars and Cents which to my ears is less interesting and a bit more old-school Radiohead. Hunting Bears is a nice instrumental led by electric guitar which builds a nice healthy bit of tension before the warped sounding Like Spinning Plates, where it sounds like the keyboard line was played backwards.

Life in A Glasshouse is the closing track and it sounds like an old jazz band after taking a load of downers. Yorke sounds almost too bleak on this one before becoming somewhat dismissive at the end ('of course I'd like to sit around and chat'). It's an unsettling way to end the album. Nevertheless the album rewards repeat listening. It's less of a cohesive listen than Kid A, but probably contains more impressive individual songs.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Ryan Adams - a riposte

Some time ago I wrote scathingly about Ryan Adams. I feel I made some valid points. However I omitted an awful lot more about this vital artist.

He broke into the music scene first as frontman of Whiskeytown. Their debut album, Faithless Street is, for some, Ryan Adams' finest hour. If you have any taste at all for country or you will not believe how perfect this album sounds. It lurches from REM style jangle (Midway Park), to Replacements trash-rock (Drank Like a River) to plaintive ballads (the title track and many others). I could write for ages about this album, it's a real underrated classic. None of the songs are particularly original, they are all vaguely country but they all sound SO good. The 21 track version is a must as the extra tracks are well worth it. There are some great lyrics about wanting to play country but being in a rock n roll band (Faithless Street / Lo-Fi Tennessee Mountain Angel). In fact, the best thing about these songs is they sound effortless, almost 'tossed-off'.

They issued a stop-gap mini-album, Rural Free Delivery, which is of almost as high a standard (especially Pawnshop Ain't No Place for a Wedding Ring). Their next album Strangers' Almanac is much loved by the critics but I failed to warm to it. All the rough edges have been smoothed away, leaving some good tunes, but there's a smoothness and sameness to this release which doesn't move me.

The follow-up, Pneumonia, got lost in between record companies for years before finally being released in 2001. It's a decent collection of songs, with plenty of mope and lope along songs (Jacksonville Skyline, Sit and Listen to the Rain), along with poppier ones like (Don't Wanna Know Why, Bar Lights).

At the same time, Adams' solo career was kicking off. Before he released his proper debut, he recorded a collection of songs with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings known as the Destroyer Sessions, which I 'stumbled upon'. It's largely acoustic with some nice touches of glockenspiel etc, and most of the songs are unavailable elsewhere. It finishes with a hard-rocking version of Revelator, which Gillian Welch went on to record acoustically and it formed the title track of her third album. The prima-donna Ryan Adams is completely absent here.

His first official solo album, Heartbreaker is very good in patches though completely overrated. There are, however, some wonderful songs on it, apart from the much played Oh My Sweet Carolina and Come Pick Me Up, namely, My Winding Wheel which is like a modern-day Dylan song (and that's a good thing) and the downright lovely AMY.

The follow-up, Suicide Handbook was rejected by his record company for being too depressing. Having heard it, it's a little one-paced for my tastes, but some of the better songs (Dear Chicago, Answering Bell) were salvaged for future releases. Gold was released instead, a sprawling, commercial collection which seemed a little calculated to make Mr. Adams a star. The Springsteen-esque pose with the US flag on the cover was a little much. The material contained within is like a fascinating game of spot the influence, everybody from, Springsteen, to Neil Young, to Elton John, Who and Rolling Stones referenced. It's a good collection of songs if a little too knowing.

There were stories flying about in the aftermath of this release of a whole load of albums ready for release. As well as the aforementioned Suicide Handbook, 48 Hours was a country collection apparently inspired by Alanis Morrissette, and there was the Stockholm (or Swedish) sessions and also a 'rock' album with a band called the 'Pinkhearts', and he was even rumoured to have recorded an acoustic, country version of the Strokes debut, Is This It. What was becoming clear was that being an prodigy was not enough for Adams, but his record company couldn't keep up. Most of the material was not released, though a collection of highlights from all of these came out, entitled 'Demolition', which doesn't really work as a cohesive listen, going from AOR rocker (Nuclear) to sensitive ballad (Dear Chicago).

Notwithstanding all of this, his next solo album proper, Love Is Hell, was rejected by his record company Lost Highway. Instead he produced a whole new album of rock songs, Rock N Roll, which for the most part didn't convince. At this stage, I, like many others was rapidly reaching Ryan Adams overload. The last thing I wanted to hear was that Love Is Hell was now also coming out, in the form of 2 EPs.

I relented, however, and purchased them. Supposedly inspired by Smiths (and subsequently re-released as one album), it's arguably his best stuff. A great big slab of rainy mope-rock, drawing from the Smiths, Lloyd Cole, Radiohead, Jeff Buckley along with nuggets of 'country goodness', the playing and songwriting on this album (or EPs) is terrific. Too many highlights to list, his singing ranges from angsty, to regret, to resignation and finally redemption. It's not all great, the Oasis cover, Wonderwall, gets tiring after a while, and the Purple Rain inspired Hotel Chelsea Nights is a little much but all the rest is really good. Some of the songs seem quite ordinary at first (This House Is Not For Sale, World War 24, City Rain,City Streets) but slowly reveal themselves to be charming strum-alongs. On ballads like My Blue Manhattan and I See Monsters he is on top form. He seems at his best when he doesn't sound like he's trying too hard (Gold, Rock N Roll).

But the story doesn't stop there. A year later (2005) he released 2 country-rock collections (Cold Roses and Jacksonville City Night). To my ears, these seemed like a deliberate return to his country roots. Far better was the 3rd (!) album he released that year, 29. Billed as one song for each of his 20s, it was back to his more singer-songwriter type songs. Apart from the chug-along title track, the album contains some of his most sensitive songs (Night Birds) and some more effortless country (Carolina Rain).

Since then he has concentrated on his work with his band, the Cardinals. My previous post will tell you I'm not so fond of them. Easy Tiger had it's moments though, mostly the more acoustic ballads, though it and the follow-up Cardinology seemed like a triumph of craft over art. It's very MOR to my ears. I don't relish him churning out album after album of this kind of 'contented' vaguely country-rock, so here's hoping he'll lose the plot again with another glorious experiment.

Greg Dulli - The Emperor's New Clothes?

Greg Dulli is somebody I've struggled with, no matter what moniker he has recorded under (Afghan Whigs, Twilight Singers, Gutter Twins). Always well regarded by the critics, here was somebody that I was determined to get into. None of the Afghan Whigs stuff I heard particularly grabbed me. My main criticism, and it's not unique to Dulli, is that it all sounds the same. I'm not particularly fond of this voice and he tends to 'Dulli-cise' everything, no matter who he works with.

My ears pricked up when I heard he was to collaborate with Mark Lanegan, who I must admit I have slavishly followed for many years. The second Twilight Singers album, Blackberry Belle, was kindly given to me by a good friend of mine (a long-time Dulli fan). It's probably my favourite of all of Dulli's incarnations. The opening track, Martin Eden, sets the tone perfectly, with a great opening line - "Black out the windows, it's party time", accompanied by a foreboding arrangement. The next song, Esta Noche, turns a ringing phone into the basis for a song, and surprisingly, it works.

Teenage Wristband, is a thinly disguised Who homage and works quite well as a Baba O'Riley inspired anthem. It's at about this stage I find myself thinking about everything I had read about this guy and started to wonder where is the depth? I mean, the music is perfectly listenable but it doesn't really move me. And his voice doesn't do much for me either.

Other highlights of this album include Papillon, which glides along nicely on the wings of a banjo. The last track, Number Nine, features guest vocals from the aforementioned Mark Lanegan, and to my ears, stands apart from the rest of the album. Lanegan's unmistakable rasp gives this song real weight (and depth), and in fact he seems to get Dulli to raise his game as Dulli's vocals are probably the best on this album.

I was lucky enough to see the Twilight Singers around this time in Whelan's in Dublin and I found them quite refreshing. Greg was in a good mood and the gig was, for want of a better word... fun.

So it was with great anticipation I bought the Twilight Singers's follow up, She Loves You, a covers album featuring more contributions from Lanegan, and covering songs from Hope Sandoval, Bjork amongst others. The album is actually quite disappointing. Lanegan's contributions are barely audible on all but one track, Hard Time Killing Floor, which succeeds because it sounds like a cross between an old blues song (which it is) and a Lanegan solo track. It's different from anything else on the album, which is largely Dulli-led. The album splits between two types of song. Contemporary type songs (Feeling of Gaze, Hyperballad), which are kind of ok, but you wonder why they bothered, especially Feeling of Gaze, where Hope Sandoval's wonderfully langurous track is transformed into an acoustic dirge. Dulli also takes on traditional type songs (Strange Fruit, Black is the Colour of My True Love's Hair, Summertime) where you wish they didn't bother. The nicest thing I can say is that they bring nothing to these songs. Strange Fruit suffers most at their hands, but it's a song which should never be covered, nothing can top Billie Holiday's chilling version.

Traumatised by this album, Dulli and I remained on hiatus till I discovered the Stitch in Time EP, released some years later. It's dominated by a fantastic version of Live with Me by Massive Attack. This song features lead vocals from Mark Lanegan and is a wonderful plea to a lover which makes the hairs on the back of one's neck stand up. The other track on the EP aren't bad either.

This brings me to the much-talked about, much anticipated Gutter Twins album, Saturnalia, a full-scale collaboration between Dulli and Lanegan. Before you even get to the music, the album has a great cover, two deserted chairs and a stormy sky. This perfectly reflects the excellent music contained within. The album kicks off with The Stations, a foreboding Lanegan song which builds and builds to a climax and then dies gently away. God's Children gives Dulli a turn at the mic and picks up the pace a bit. All Misery / Flowers keeps up the intensity till The Body provides calmer fare, clearing the way for the massive rocker Idle Hands. Lanegan's robo-blues growl drives this track which is one of the heaviest things either of these guys have done in years. After this the album starts to tread water a little bit (relatively speaking) before picking up with I Was in Love with You, a Beatles-esque track sung by Dulli which works very well. Bete Noire is like a long-lost late period Screaming Trees track with Lanegan's voice backed up by accompanying vocals which are very reminescent of the Screaming Trees.

Each to Each, the second last track seems out of place here with it's cheesy keyboards, but the last song, Front Street is an emotional punch to the gut. Opening with birds singing, it's dominated by Dulli's vocals framed by an acoustic guitar, then little by little the other instruments come in to bring the song and album to an exhilarating end.

Seeing these songs live did not disappoint either, it was a great concert, but don't ever expect much on-stage banter from Lanegan! Their next gig is reviewed elsewhere on this blog.

Adorata, an EP of covers and other odds and ends followed, which for the most part is excellent. The Jose Gonzalez cover, Down the Line, is not one of the better ones, with it's Bonnie Tyler style keyboards, but Deep Hit of Morning Sun (Primal Scream cover), Spanish Doors and We Have Met Before (the two originals) are excellent.

This post betrays my Lanegan obsession, and Dulli can only suffer by comparison. Good in small doses, maybe?