Thursday, 24 April 2008

Can My Tindersticks Love Grow Any Further?

I'm currently reading The Gift by Lewis Hyde, which suggests that interaction with art is a gift exchange from the artist to the observer that exists in tandem with the commercial interaction that goes the other way, and that true spiritual satisfaction lies in that ephemeral transaction rather than in the monetary sense, which could (and often will) corrupt the nature of the relationship between the participants. There's much more to it than that, but right now it's making me wonder about how to discuss cultural experiences I've had, and what is the nature of my connection to the artists I respect and whose work has been important to me, particularly when I feel let down by them. Am I wrong to think like that? In reverse, what obligation do artists have to their fans, if any?

Tindersticks are one of my very favourite bands, responsible for a series of good-to-great albums that never set the world on fire, and probably never could. The parallel Earth in which they are the world's biggest band must be a peculiar place of eternal rainfall, darkened streets, murky bars and endless romantic strife for everyone living there. The French film industry would be the most popular artistic factory in the world, cigarettes would be smoked as an expression of inner torment, and all men must wear suits that have seen better days. This video for their song Rented Rooms, from their third album Curtains, sums up their philosophy brilliantly. The opening shows the public perception of their sound, and when it suddenly switches from the album version to their b-side swing band version, their hidden playfulness come out.

I guess they had to play with their public persona. That dour aspect and melancholic air is obviously ripe for parody. Melody Maker used to take the piss regularly, even though very few bands represented the more cerebral and fringe tastes of the Maker writers more perfectly than the 'Sticks. Whatever. Even though the band was obviously aware that the bleak nature of their songs was considered unfashionable or self-consciously depressing, their magisterial second album features a song, My Sister, that is so gratuitously miserabilist that I refuse to believe it is anything but a comment on their reputation as gloomy bastards. Here are the lyrics, spoken by Stuart Staples in his signature depressive, emotive drawl over a lolloping tune that even manages to be occasionally peppy, despite the subject matter.

That said, even knowing that the band are not just mechanically sourfaced, the relationships within the band seem to have been fraught with tension even at an early stage, something I had never noticed prior to tonight, while researching this post (in my traditionally half-hearted stylee). Even as early as Curtains, they were becoming unhappy with the demands of being in a touring band that had become their livelihood instead of an escape from the drudgery of the working life, as David Boulter explains here. One way to escape that tension was to change their approach to music. Their early albums were reiterations of the same sound, which I loved, but their first soul album, Simple Pleasures, left me completely cold. To this day I still dislike a lot of it. How could the band that had created something as perfect as that second album come up with something so peculiar? I reacted like a brat, and abandoned my previous adoration with much bitterness.

Of course, I was to be proved wrong. Their next album, Can Our Love..., was a masterpiece. Refining that new soul sound, they perfectly spliced their two approaches together, creating something new and wonderful, a hybrid that sounded like Serge Gainsbourg covering 70s soul tracks. I remember my first experience of it, being so astonished at its boldness and intellectual and emotional clarity that I could barely believe it existed. It remains one of my favourite ever records, even today. Here is the title track...

...and here is the Cosgrove-Hall-animated video for one of the other stand-out tracks, Dying Slowly. Again, the band is playing up to that depressive image brilliantly.

Their next album, Waiting For The Moon, was certainly no failure, but after the artistic success of Can Our Love... it had an uphill struggle to top it, which it couldn't do. And then, without realising there was anything wrong, and not long after I saw them play the first ever concert held at the Royal Court in Sloane Square, the band split up, and we were left with Stuart Staples releasing solo albums, the second of which, Leaving Songs, impressed me greatly. The other main artistic locus in the band, the absurdly talented multi-instrumentalist Dickon Hinchliffe, is now doing soundtracks for film and commercials, which is a natural extension of the work the 'Sticks did on Claire Denis' movies Nénette et Boni and low-key erotic vampire/cannibal movie Trouble Every Day (featuring Vincent Gallo and Beatrice Dalle, both in full-on bonkers crazy-go-nuts effect). Here's an example of his new direction; an unusually aggressive Kashmir-esque piece for this very expensive looking Mercedes ad.

His film career appears to be doing well, and he has it in him to become the British Alexandre Desplat, which is a good place to be. However, I only realised that he was no longer a band member tonight, having stopped waiting for news of new projects. The last time I had a Tindersticks experience was when I saw their All Tomorrow's Parties concert at the Barbican, performing their second album in its entirety. It was a masterful performance (though some will wrongly argue it was boring and one-note), and led me to believe the band were getting along despite their decision to split. So you can imagine my surprise when I found a copy of their new album (which I didn't even know existed) sitting on my desk at work, staring up at me like an unloved teddy bear, waiting for me to hug it and squeeze it. They had reformed?!!? With joy I leapt up and hurled it into a CD player, and listened with much feverish anticipation.

It was three songs in before I realised there was a problem. Even though I should have known it already, it was obvious even on my first listen that Hinchliffe was definitely missing, and their sound has suffered for it. It's a cliche that art has to be forged by toil and anger and emotion, but the tensions between the band members have created some amazing records, and The Hungry Saw, though not a bad album by any stretch, is missing the spark they once had. This is where my original questions come in. Hinchliffe has moved on and has projects of his own to worry about. Staples and the other remaining band members are trying to forge a valid artistic future for themselves. I wish them all luck, and at the same time I just want them to forget about all that independence nonsense, get the whole gang back together, and create something as startling as Can Our Love... Hell, even Waiting For The Moon made more of an impression on me on first listen. Other than some fireworks towards the end of The Hungry Saw, this is the first time I've heard a Tindersticks album and not felt some stirrings of excitement at some point. Compare that to April, the new album by Sun Kil Moon, aka Mark "Red House Painters" Kozelek, which sounds exactly the same as his other albums and yet still hit me in my soul like an ICBM.

Repeated listens will, I'm sure, yield better results, and there are already songs I've pegged as being possible future favourites, but there is nothing that has shocked me the way Mistakes did the first time I heard it, or She's Gone, or Sweet Release, or Bathtime, or Running Wild, or any number of other songs from their previous albums. Even worse, some songs hint at greatness but are almost sabotaged midway through. The promising Boobar Come Back To Me is derailed by some misjudged backing vocals. All The Love has a lovely haunting female vocal, but Staples' refrain is too reminiscent of his work on the aforementioned Running Wild. Flicker of a Girl, which is the first song they revealed on their MySpace page, is pretty formulaic, and just to be a dick, I can't help but be annoyed by the clarinet part that parps in about a minute in. And yes, I'm the kind of jerk whose enjoyment of a song can be ruined by the smallest thing.

The purpose of this post isn't really to rag on the band. I'm glad they're still recording, and The Hungry Saw will be listened to many times more than other albums that don't set my hair on fire straight away (Spoon's highly lauded Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga got about six listens before it was deleted from the iPod. This will not happen to Hungry Saw). What struck me as I listened to it, though, was how annoyed I was that the band had dared to split up in the first place, as if I was personally insulted by their choice. A moment's reflection later, and I realised I was being really unrealistic and arrogant, but that reaction was a potent one. What the hell business is it of mine to be pissy about this? I don't own their work, and I have no say in what they do.

And that rang true especially after beginning The Gift, in which Hyde argues that the artist will be fulfilled by the giving of the gift of his uncompromised art to everyone else, and the audience is equally enriched upon receiving the gift, and that should be pretty much the perfect relationship between creator and consumer. Tindersticks are one of the most individual and uncompromising bands I listen to, and that commitment to their artistic vision is one of the reasons why I love them so much. And yet now I feel like a Beatles fan getting annoyed at Lennon for daring to fall in with some weird Japanese performance artist instead of hugging it out with his bitch Macca. It's like Eno leaving Roxy Music all over again, or The Pixies splitting up. Just as Last Splash by The Breeders and Teenager of the Year by Frank Black were okay albums that pale into insignificance when held next to Doolittle and Surfer Rosa, The Hungry Saw and some commercial soundtracks will always seem pitiful next to the mighty Can Our Love...

Why can't I just accept the gift Hyde talks about, instead of thinking there is some obligation to me to battle through discord simply to make me happy? Why am I still resisting the idea of a gift economy like the one Hyde posits? We're not even talking about the actual economic version of it, just the artistic version. I still feel like I'm owed something, that fans have a say in what their idols do, even though what I'm hoping for is for years of tension and friction to be waved away for my benefit. It's amazing how pompous I felt when I looked hard at my initial reaction. Consider the awful, chastening irony that I laugh at the fools who railed against Dylan or Miles Davis for going electric, or the jerks who hated Radiohead for taking their favourite Autechre albums too seriously and daring to create something like Kid A (which I still maintain is a classic). (That said, at least in those cases the controversial works proved to be significant in an artistic sense, whereas I remain to be convinced of the merit of The Hungry Saw.)

I should just be grateful Staples, Hinchliffe, and the rest of the band are still around. If I could eventually come to enjoy Frank Black's later work even though it was not as good as his Pixies stuff, I should just embrace this new direction, and be glad they're still out there, even if they might not be able to capture that incredible magic again. I'm just amazed at how easy it is for me to become a swivel-eyed maniac when someone dares to exercise their autonomy and do things their way, which makes me doubt either the truth of the artistic gift economy idea, or my ability to adapt myself to the concept. It makes a mockery of my recent ranting against the evils of The Market. Tell me about an alternative that has worked in the past, and even when watered down to a hypothetical concept about transferring what amounts to good will, let alone moving actual physical resources around, and I panic.

Okay, enough whining about this. Look! It's a trailer for Kung Fu Panda! And amazingly it looks great! Check out the face of Master Monkey as he passes through the obstacle course in slow motion. That's made me love the movie without even seeing it.

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