“This is their second album since half of the original sextet quit. Its predecessor, 2008’s The Hungry Saw, exhibited some of the same tentativeness. They are, in a sense, a new band living in the long shadow of an old one. Their first three albums were difficult masterpieces, their next few strange explorations of soul music, their sixth a summary and a farewell. Albums seven and eight have been relaxed and seemingly unconcerned with besting the old stuff.”
—Pitchfork’s Joe Tangari.
That just ‘bout sums it up. At least, in comparison to The Hungry Saw, there’s one great song here: “Harmony Around My Table,” a jaunty soul number that you’d only know as a Tindersticks’ tune because of Stuart Staples’ unmistakable vocals. There’s something particularly wonderful about how the band doesn’t introduce the vocal harmonies the first time Staples demands for some “harmony around my table,” it’s like a tease to something that (you know) will actually happen. The best sorts of teases, in other words. Though I’m not nearly by it as enamored as others, the jazz-fusion and opener is also indeed worth a listen thanks to the drums that are allowed to do more than just keep time as on the rest of the record (if they existed at all), and the trumpet weaving feverishly in and around the mantra from the two vocalists. And finally you can keep the bawdy and rhythmic “She Rode Me Down” (“She rode me like a train / Like a hurtling steaming train”) because those adjectives are a rarity on the record.
The rest? “Keep You Beautiful” exists for a single hook that elbows you the entire way through to flaunt how hooky it is, and I feel like the ballad “Factory Girls” plays itself out well before the climax comes. While those songs and the instrumentals (“Hubbard Hills” and the creatively titled “Piano Song”) are merely competent at best and complacent at worst, there’s some bad stuff going on in the rest of Falling Down a Mountain. For example, there’s the cluttering backing vocals in “Black Smoke” that make it seem like the band were confused as to whether to make a guitar-chugging Velvet Underground song (“Beginning to See The Light”) or a Lou Reed glam-rock number (“Wagon Wheel”) and settled for a mediocre fusion of the two while “No Place So Alone” tries to hide its lack of anything interesting under an annoying buzz throughout its runtime.
Then there’s the waltz-timed and dueted “”Peanuts,” which starts off fine, surprisingly enough since it’s two people discussing the subject in the song’s title in affectionate ways (“I know you love peanuts / I don’t care that much / I know you love peanuts / So I love peanuts too”), but there’s three problems with the song. One, it goes for what feels like forever. Two, the addition of additional instruments – the harmonica and brass in the song’s final 90 seconds or so – are more thrown in for the sake of “Look! Harmonica and brass!” than actually doing anything interesting with either instrument. Three, when you heard “Travelling Light” – which I know you have if you’re still bothering with this band in 2010 – you realize how much this one pales in comparison.
Later that same year, The National – a band that has most recently decided to sound like a cross between Tindersticks and Joy Division but with a less distinct and thus less divisive vocalist than either band – came out with High Violet, and it almost pains me to say it, but it was a lot better than this.