Tuesday, 16 February 2021

Tindersticks ‎– Distractions (2021)

Style: Indie Rock
Format: CD, Vinyl, FLAC
Label: City Slang, Lucky Dog

1.   Man Alone (Can't Stop The Fadin') 
2.   I Imagine You
3.   A Man Needs A Maid
4.   Lady With The Braid
5.   You'll Have To Scream Louder 
6.   Tue-moi
7.   The Bough Bends

Artwork By – Sidonie Osborne Staples
Mastered By – Jason Mitchell
Mixed By – Côme Jalibert
String Quartet Recorded By – George Murphy 
Producer, Mixed By – Stuart A. Staples

Nottingham’s perpetually disappointed romantics, Tindersticks would seem to have spent 2020’s almost never-ending Covid lockdown creating their 21st album (including film soundtracks), Distractions. However, just as the pandemic has been for the rest of us, its recording sounds like it was something of a socially distanced affair. Gone is the lush orchestrally infused backing of brass, strings and such that often made Stuart Staples’ mob come over like the musical offspring of Barry Adamson and Tom Waits. Instead, a more minimalist style has been adopted that occasionally seems to utilise little more than a cheap Casio keyboard and a sampler to create vocal and instrumental loops. It’s a sound, however, that is far from jarring and actually suits their claustrophobic and mournful tunes quite well.

Distractions is made up of three cover versions from the back catalogues of Neil Young, Dory Previn and the Television Personalities, bookended by a couple of originals at either end of the album. Opening track, “Man Alone (Can’t Stop the Fadin’)” clocks in at over 11 minutes and is particularly narcotic and woozy with its hypnotic bass, tinny drum machine and Staples intoning “No, I’m not greedy for the sky no-more” and “Can’t stop the fadin’" over and over. “I Imagine You”, on the other hand, is beatless and breathy, wallowing in longing and desperation.

Of the covers, the Television Personalities’ “You’ll Have to Scream Louder” is a gem of reinvention with an almost funky guitar groove that has Tindersticks getting as close to Nile Rogers’ sound as they are ever likely to find themselves. The final pair of originals, however, sink deeper into the gloom and feature “Tue-Moi”, a beautiful piano ballad with Staples mournfully singing in French, while the Leonard Cohen-esque “The Bough Breaks” tugs at the heartstrings with a pastoral vibe that samples enough of the birdsong of the English countryside to make it clear that heartbreak isn’t confined to poets in their urban bedsits.

Guy Oddy / theartsdesk
Explaining how Tindersticks’ 13th studio album came together, frontman Stuart Staples is adamant: Distractions isn’t to be considered a lockdown album. Yes, naturally the events of the last 12 months have had a bearing on how this new collection of songs was born. But the groundwork for the record was laid way back in a burst of writing in February 2020, when the idea of an international pandemic might still have seemed a fanciful proposition. The recording, meanwhile, was completed last September at Staples’ own Le Chien Chanceux studio in Limousin, France, with the full Tindersticks band present for a brief window before the shutters clanged back down once more.

Staples no doubt felt the need to point this out because Distractions feels like a step change for Tindersticks, a record that disposes with many of the old methods, and ushers in a few new ones. The group’s last album, 2019’s No Treasure But Hope, was a sensuous and sumptuously orchestrated outing that found Staples – an incorrigible romantic, albeit one with a long pessimistic streak – creeping towards some sort of contentment. Distractions, on the other hand, sounds rather different. Lean and stripped back of instrumentation, possessed of a prickly temperament and – by Tindersticks’ rather lugubrious standards – a fire burning in its belly, it proves that even this rather venerable band still have the capacity to surprise.

For a taste of this, look no further than the opening track. It clocks in at a remarkable 11 minutes in length, but “Man Alone (Can’t Stop The Fadin’)” is a lean and urgent thing, characterised by stripped-back electronics and a simmering, coiled-spring tension. Staples’ nervy vocal brings to mind the manic ululations of Suicide’s Alan Vega, and every now and then, as his voice falls out of narrative and slips into chant (“Can’t stop the fadin’/Can’t stop the fadin’…”) it is suddenly interrupted by a sonic intrusion: a cacophony of car horns, or a burst of torrential rain. Equally sparse is the following “I Imagine You”, which finds Staples lost in a reverie of remembrance, his husky whisper swaddled by the lilting tones of David Coulter’s musical saw.

Tindersticks have long been recognised for their bold cover versions, and Distractions’ mid-section is given over to three audacious reinterpretations. Staples is joined by regular collaborator Gina Baker for a cover of Neil Young’s “A Man Needs A Maid”, the lonely sentiments of the original transmuted into a sleek electronic torch song with shades of Angelo Badalamenti. A take on Dory Previn’s “Lady With The Braid”, meanwhile, feels more playful. Previn’s original is a seduction monologue that grows in desperation with every passing line, and Staples warmly embraces both the song’s tragedy and its levity: “Would you care to stay ’til sunrise/It’s completely your decision/It’s just the night cuts through me like a knife…” Finally, a grooving, dub-tinged reworking of Television Personalities’ “You’ll Have To Scream Louder” marks a rare burst of political rage for the band, pointedly drawing lines between the iniquities of the post-punk age, and our current moment. “I’ve got no respect for/People in power/They make their decisions/From their ivory towers,” seethes Staples.

But Distractions saves its most moving moments ’til last. Tindersticks were regular performers at Le Bataclan, the Paris theatre which became the site of a terrorist attack in 2015. “Tue-Moi” is a tribute to the venue and those who died there. Staples sings it in French, backed only by Dan MacKinna’s Rachmaninoff-inspired piano, and the result is deeply moving, imbued with noble sadness and a glimmer of rage. Finally, there is “The Bough Bends”. The album’s closing track, it adopts a gentle pace, its soft drum machine adorned by Boulter’s twinkling Mellotron and Neil Fraser’s softly rugged guitar. Lyrically, it has the feeling of a summation or a weighing of the past, Staples shifting between husky croon and spoken word as he dwells on past romances, missed opportunities, and the smile of a loved one. The song ends, as it begins, with the twitter of bird song, although such is the sense of heavy emotional weather that it lingers a little after the album draws to a close.

This deep into a band’s career, you rather come to expect familiar moves – the soundtrack work, the theatre shows, the occasional new albums that further deepen and build on those early themes. In many ways, Distractions is an enigma. In years to come, we may look back on this record as transitional, or a product of its times. But to hear a band of this vintage still listening – and responding – to their instincts is a joy in itself.
Louis Pattison / UNCUT

The announcement of this new Tindersticks album came as a delight to many following the disappointment of their tour date cancellations and the rescheduling of their London Royal Festival Hall show to May next year. It was also an added delight to see an invigorated sense of purpose, new colours added to their palette. Sometimes unfairly maligned as maudlin and morose, this massively underserves them and needs dismissing forthwith. Furthermore, the progressions and additions to their idiosyncratic style are continuing to flower in exotic and unexpected directions.

The days of the large and multi-faceted band of the 1990s are long gone, and they are down to a central core of Stuart Staples’ lugubrious vocal majesty, Neil Fraser on guitars, Dave Boulter on, principally, keyboards, the other musicians here being Dan McKinna and Earl Harvin on bass and drums respectively. Sometime member, guitarist, David Kitt also appears. Whilst there is a string quartet, much of the embellishment, where there is any, is from mellotron and synthesiser. Likewise, their traditionally broad sweep of lush orchestration has been switched to a more vibrant dynamic, an increasingly ‘live in the studio’ ambience that hints at an eye on improvisation, rather than the densely rehearsed overtures that made their name. All this works to the good, and, whilst moving waywardly in this direction since the band regrouped in 2006/7, this record sends out a number of surprising tendrils, simultaneously and in opposing directions, begging the question as to which and how many will they choose to follow.

Opener ‘Man Alone (Can’t Stop the Fadin’)’, epitomises this, kicking off with pulsing bass and a motorik drumbeat, over which Staples briefly moans wordlessly. The track then gradually builds, with a minimalistic vocal melody, Staples double and sometimes triple tracked on himself, repetitive motifs, chanting the bracketed phrase. Outwardly sounds, electronic traffic noises, then break in, and an overall sense of controlled hysteria is the mood, waxing and waning, the pulse a constant over eleven minutes. An extraordinary start that near makes the recording essential already, as the ‘sticks go kosmisch’.

Rather than any momentum being sustained, the impetus then drops to nil, the slightest of tunes playing over a backdrop of musical saw, a suspended animation with Staples alternating between spoken word and singing, a familiar tone poem atmospheric, a style well known to lovers of this band. The singer himself describes it, perfectly, as “a song from down the back of the sofa, losing a sense of connectivity with the world.” Entitled ‘I Imagine You’, it is almost imaginary, and allows the mind to wander.

Cover versions have often been part of Tindersticks repertoire, and there are three here, the first being a stunning version of Neil Young’s ‘A Man Needs A Maid’, one of Shakey’s mawkier offerings. But this is nothing short of alchemy, taking a few moments to make itself known as the same song, an almost trip-hop arrangement stripping it back, the melancholy of Staples’ delivery showstopping, aching harmony vocals provided by Gina Foster. The song has been in their live repertoire awhile, but never sounding quite so gaunt.

The second cover is a Dory Previn song, ‘The Lady With a Braid’, which steps the pace a little, with a tune reminiscent of ‘The Ballad of Lucy Jordan’, something I couldn’t recall from the original, a piece of Laurel Canyon whimsy I had near forgotten. The most conventionally presented song here, it acts a necessary palate cleanser after the emotional wrench thus far. And did I mention a wonderful bass solo towards the end?

Which is no preparation for the third and final cover, an impassioned working of ‘You’ll Have To Scream Louder’, originally by agit-punks the Television Personalities. The angry lyric sounds more menacing and threatening than in the more frantic original, with Staples’ hushed rage quite chilling. Incidentally, this would be a good track to play to any nay-sayer, his voice positively Ferry-esque, which, allied to the OMD style drum machine, should open any heart to his marmite timbre.

But probably skip the next one to those same sceptics, ‘Tue-Moi’ perhaps as close to the cliché as anything here. Me, I love it, but solemn piano and being sung in French, might stretch the exposure. A lament around the Bataclan massacre in Paris, it moves me in ways beyond my grasp of the language.

Closer, ‘The Bough Bends’, is the yang to the krautrock yin of the opener, introduced by birdsong and Staples’ metronomic panting. A mellotron plays a flute melody, and the song starts, spoken words that may or not be commenting on the process of committing music to record. Mindful of avoiding comparisons, I found myself here thinking of Jackie Leven. As different as can be from the first track, this acts as a perfect bookending to the project, another near ten-minute track, the texture gradually building, a hypnotic repetition that constantly changes, found sounds and extruded voices bleeding in and out, over the delicate whisper of Staples’ exquisite fragility. A beautiful song.

Are this band getting better and better? On this evidence, the answer is yes. A mesmerising listen that demands repeated immersion: like a gently deceptive theme park ride, as you climb off at the end, so you are compelled to run around again to the start.

Seuras Og  / folk radio