REVIEW: Tindersticks – Distractions

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Now, here’s a word that is indeed burdened with a load of negative connotations: distraction. Every self-help guru on the market is more than willing and able to sell you the best tools for building enough moral fiber to not be led astray from the life’s yellow-brick road by these evil bastards. Distractions shift our attention to all kinds of dubious things that are potentially nothing but a waste of time. Then again, the very beauty of life derives from the fact that wasting time can be highly enjoyable. In this respect, I could not have thought up a better title for the new TINDERSTICKS album, ”Distractions,” to be released on February 19th, 2021, via City Slang. At first listening, the album slightly comes off as a nice coffee table soundtrack for a comfy Sunday morning: some bacon and eggs with a hot cup of strong espresso and some music that does not distract too much… A person more inclined to bad-mouthing might even deem the music kind of bland, sorely lacking the energy to get anyone’s pulse going. The band was formed in Nottingham, UK, in 1991 but after six studio albums the frontman, Stuart Staples, went solo. Briefly after a false start at reuniting, the band returned with a more firm foothold in 2007. So these fine gents have had enough time to engineer their subtle art of distraction. Waist-deep in the dark, translunary world of the 1980s new wave, RADIOHEAD-styled experimentalism, and minimalistic weirdness, the new studio outing resonates with the dark aura of southern Gothic; There is something slightly off. You can sense the presence of something eerie, irrational, or maybe even horrific. First, you don’t really pay attention to it but it’s there – that nagging little feeling in the back of your mind. Then, it grows and grows, eventually claiming your full attention.

The journey to the netherworld starts with the album opener, ”Man Alone (Can’t Stop Fadin’).” The song sounds as though David Byrne and the krautrock legends, CAN, had crashed some casual LCD SOUNDSYSTEM basement session under the influence of some dubious, dissociative drug. In spite of the vintage-sounding electro-beat, you don’t really want to start dancing, not even if your life depended on it. If this could be labeled disco, it would be disco music for the alienated youth. When Staples repeats the line, ”falling into the sea, falling into this life,” in the song’s outro, it resonates with the eerie, slightly out-of-tune aura of Scott Walker‘s most classic tracks.

I Imagine You” is like a poetry reading, a spectral invocation, or the voice-over track from an epic movie, juxtaposed against the ambient soundtrack, further intensifying the subtle Scott Walker vibes. If you liked the STORM CORROSION project of Steven Wilson and the OPETH frontman, Mikael Åkerfeldt, it is highly likely that this album is very much your cup of tea. Due to its introspective and intimate nature, it works best when enjoyed with headphones on. Reverberating with a distinct sense of having lost connection to the world, the song would fit perfectly in anyone’s lockdown playlist.

On the cover rendition of Neil Young‘s 1972 classic, ”A Man Needs A Maid,” featuring additional vocals by Gina Foster, TINDERSTICKS takes the proverbial, ”less is more” approach to the max. The soulful version puts a lot of faith in the empty spaces between notes. We all have the same twelve notes to work with but some of us have that magical skill of leaving enough space between them – and that’s very often where the magic happens. On this version, it certainly does happen.

So halfway through the album, everything is still looking fine and dandy. The next couple of songs plunge headfirst into the dark side of the 1980s alternative maybe a bit too deep for my taste, however. ”Lady With the Braid” is another cover song. The original was performed by the American singer-songwriter, Dory Previn, in the early 1970s, endorsing all the elements of the country-ish Americana of the era. TINDERSTICKS has gently disposed of the country flavors to which I find hard to object since I am not very fond of that particular genre, to begin with. This rendition pulsates with the slightly ominous dub-vibes of vintage Grace Jones hits from the 1980s yuppie times. What the version lacks here, though, is the diabolical intensity of Mrs. Jones’s vocal delivery, and the following track, ”You’ll Have to Scream Louder,” flirts with dubby flavors with somewhat similar shortcomings. The track is also a cover version, this time of a TELEVISION PERSONALITIES original, and it is clearly the weakest contribution on the album. Even the stripped-down piano ballad, ”Tue Moi,” has some nice, chanson-styled chord changes to lift the track above the aforementioned delay-frenzy.

The closing track, ”The Bough Bends,” is pure poetry. I mean, actually, it is and it’s a bit confusing since I am not exactly a fan of this type of artsy stuff, normally. It only goes to show the power of distraction on this album. These old geezers know what they’re doing. On the surface, the new TINDERSTICKS album might seem as though the band was just performing ritual devotions to the virtues of vintage alternative. When you scratch beneath the surface, a netherworld of warm and intimate wisdom of age and eloquence unfolds. A disclaimer might be in order, though: don’t be fooled. First, the album distracts just a little as though saying, ”don’t mind me, I’m just doodling away here…” Then, the eerie sense of something being slightly off demands more and more of your attention – and then you’re hooked. The album works as a narcotic substance.

Written by Jani Lehtinen

Tracklist

  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

Lineup

Stuart Staples – Vocals

Neil Fraser – Guitars

David Boulter – Keyboards, multi-instrumentalism

Earl Harvin – Drums

Dan McKinna – multi-instrumentalism

Label

City Slang

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