2008 was a turbulent year for the U.K.-based Tindersticks. After parting ways with founding members Dickon Hinchliffe and Alistair Macaulay, the remaining members of the band opted for a new line-up and a complete dissection of their distinctively brooding, R&B-tinged sound. What resulted was The Hungry Saw, an album so sparse it bordered on bleakness. It was a bold move for a band that had sustained a nearly 20-year career making the kind of wallowing, soulful music you’d be honored to sway to drunkenly at a wedding, with a dancing partner or without. For those who have been following Tindersticks’ career up to now, though, Falling Down A Mountain, might come as an even bigger shock.
Opening with the sprawling jazz rollick “Falling Down A Mountain,” Tindersticks almost seem to be toying with its fans’ perception of the band. New drummer David Kitt allows his percussive know-how to shake, rattle, and pop with jubilant verve providing, an instantly danceable backbone for the players to build upon. Terry Edwards’ trumpet coasts along washes of ambient guitar feedback, while Staples’ call-and-response mantra, “Baby won’t you come on, baby come on/ Falling down a mountain,” is wonderfully echoed by Dan McKenna’s bass line.
In fact, energetic arrangements hallmark Falling Down A Mountain, from the effortlessly catchy retro sunshine pop of “Harmony Around My Table” to the Velvet Underground-reminiscent “Black Smoke.” To a lesser degree, the flamenco guitars and Southwest-inspired landscapes of “She Rode Me Down” sustain this energy, but in the shadow of stronger songwriting elsewhere on the album, the track feels like a sheep in wolf’s clothing.
In true Tindersticks form, some of Falling Down A Mountain’s strongest moments also come in the form of tender balladry. “Peanuts,” a duet with reclusive Canadian singer Mary Margaret O’Hara, is a deceptively simple track about the sacrifices, big and small, one often makes for love. “Keep You Beautiful” is a seductive Bacharach-inspired arrangement made more stoic by Staples’ delicate delivery. While penultimate track “Factory Girls” begins with simplistic piano tinkering that crescendos into a swell of epic chamber pop with David Boulter’s masterful piano playing cascading down the arrangement like stardust.
The album closes with “Piano Music,” an oddly arranged, string-laden instrumental that makes for an appropriate ending to an album of such unlikely beauty and hard won joy. While not the definitive Tindersticks album, Falling Down A Mountain is a compassionate, delicately rendered collection of songs that warrants repeated listening.