Tindersticks may not have set out to make “A Lockdown Record” with the remote and remotely recorded Distractions (there were earlier band sessions, ahead of the new rules that came in under pandemic’s total fucking chaos) but the end result sure sounds like A Lockdown Record. Brilliantly so.
In much the way that Lambchop revolves around frontman Kurt Wagner and has a flexible line-up, the same is true of Tindersticks, with Stuart A. Staples at the helm. And in much the same that Lambchop has been experimenting with falsetto pop and electronica but recently came back out the other side of it via covers with TRIP, the Distractions album sees Tindersticks going somewhere new, and mostly via the vehicle of exploratory covers. Well, where Lambchop went full cover-version, here the ‘Sticks have included three covers on a 7-song set; so nearly 50/50 – but the covers are the real revelations here; the cliché applies: They make these songs their own.
So, some basic band work was completed together – then it was to own homes and locking down as the album progress continued. Staples’ vocal is the, um, staple here. And light keyboard and guitar funk set against clipped drum-machine rhythms. It’s different. For this band. But then, this band loves to make every recording session a new thing. Particularly in the last decade of the group’s ever-evolving existence.
Distractions kicks off with about the most un-Tindersticks thing ever, an 11-minute slice-and-a-half of bedsit-techno that feels like some Roxy Music reboot. Staples goes full Ferry croon on this tune and a slinky bit of bass makes the hypnotic groove pull you in as he whisper-howls a bit of existential terror. It’s riveting. Beautiful. Creepy. Magnificent.
Then to a ghostly sliver-song, I Imagine You, which is part early-days Anthony & The Johnsons (now known only as Anohni – but I’m referring to the first couple of EPs and albums and that sound in particular).
The album hinge arrives in the three cover versions – first a simply intoxicating rework of Neil Young’s A Man Needs A Maid. Who could have thought this song would fly in 2021. But this is almost like The Blue Nile gets funky. It’s really price-of-admission stuff on its own. I play this song on a loop – it is the chief distraction amid Distractions, it almost threatens to derail any listen of the album because I need to hear it on repeat!
Dory Previn’s Lady With The Braid is next. Its stripped of its countrypolitan slickness (think 70s Scott Walker meets Nancy & Lee) and the quiet devastation of the lyric is brought further forward with Staples doing demented lounge-singer against staccato drum-machine backing and a Leonard Cohen-esque musical backdrop.
You’ll Have To Scream Louder, originally by Television Personalities, is the final cover on this new album – and it’s to a brighter musical backing with a watercolour flourish of soft-funk guitar. Such a great song. Again, an unlikely candidate for a song to be given new wings in 2021, but stripped of its post-punk clothing its basically having its own 1AM dance before bed after a night out.
Tue-moi is next, another cover in fact – Florent Pagny’s French torch ballad. Staples sings it, en français with only a piano to frame it. Gorgeous.
Tindersticks love a good book-ender, so Distractions finishes with a nearly 10-minute track (The Bough Bends) to mirror its long opener. This builds from whispered spoken-word to late-night-drive soundtrack vibe. It could give Nick Cave a lesson or two.
Most new Tindersticks albums blow me away on first and second listen. Then I shelve them. The catalogue so rich and deep. And the parallel career as score composers is actually enough to satiate a lot of the time. But the no-frills earnestness of this record has something truly special about it. Exquisite song selection and performances. This is a subtle stunner.
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