This sextet conjures up images of smoky late nights soaked in booze (red wine, perhaps?) and disillusionment, as the band brings forth a uniquely stylish and moody sound that’s centered around the ultra deep baritone of Stuart Staples. While Staples’ haunting singing (he also talk/mumbles mysteriously in a Michael Stipe kind of way) helps make this combination singularly satisfying, musically the band is also remarkably together for a debut album. Tindersticks occupies a hazy late night niche that holds few if any contemporaries, and though other doomed romantics such as Leonard Cohen, Scott Walker, Lee Hazelwood, and Nick Cave come to mind, to my mind these guys blow away any and all competition when it comes to this type of music. Equally effective dishing out brilliant minimalism or luxuriantly layering on instrumental textures, the band’s sound is lush and lovely, but also moody and malevolent. A brooding darkness often seems to lurk right around the corner of even their most beautiful melodies (of which there are many), and nothing here is quite as it seems, as above all else this album is a masterpiece of altering moods. For example, “Tyed” starts with a lone trumpet, moves onto an eerie section that I'd describe as "haunted house music", and then ends with a discordant yet somehow accessible guitar jam. Strings are used to build to a similarly spectacular crescendo on “Jism,” while spooky violins give way to flawless string arrangements on “Whiskey and Water.” Other highlights include the achingly beautiful “Blood,” and “City Sickness,” which has an especially evocative string arrangement. I could go on and rave about other songs - such as “Marbles” and “Tie Die,” both of which are boosted by unforgettably atmospheric pump organ (the intro to “Marbles” in particular is as flawless as music gets), or “Raindrops,” which has some of the prettiest piano you’ll ever hear - but the truth is that Tindersticks (The First Album) should be ingested as a whole. As if to prove this point, several mood enhancing fillers and segues fill out this stunningly ambitious 77-minute album, which was a riveting debut drenched in sorrow.
Tindersticks (The Second Album) (Polygram ‘95) Rating: A+
Every bit as ambitious as its eye-popping predecessor, this second straight double album was also met with near universal acclaim, and deservedly so. Themes are consistent with what came before, but if anything this album is even more mournful than the first one. It’s also arguably more beautiful, and individual songs stick out more (perhaps because there are less of them), including dramatic highlights such as “A Night In,” “Tiny Tears,” “Talk To Me,” and “Travelling Light,” the latter a stunning duet with The Walkabouts' Carla Torgerson. Staples’ storytelling knack is intact on twisted tales such as “My Sister,” an 8-minute spoken word piece that works brilliantly. But even if the lyrics were terrible it wouldn’t matter, since Staples’ voice is so sad sounding that he can make even nonsensical vocal melodies and lines like “I’m travelling light” sound like the most serious and important statements ever uttered. Aside from a couple of brief interludes, the 16 songs here generally take their own sweet time in building up to delectably mournful moods, and in typical Tindersticks tradition the songs here range from (generally) lushly beautiful to absolutely sinister, sometimes within the same song! And though the instrumentation can be quite sparse, the band knows just when and how to add the perfect accompaniment, whether it be in the form of a fuzzy guitar solo, creaky violin, gorgeous string arrangment, plunked vibraphone, floating flute, or some quietly piddling piano. Yet for all their instrumental ingenuity the band’s success is still most reliant on Staples’ one-of-a-kind voice, and his world-weary croons grow ever richer with repeated introductions (despite an at times annoying tendency to mumble inaudibly). Bigger in the U.K. than the U.S., this amazing cult band would likely be embraced by many with but more exposure, as this second straight masterpiece (also clocking in at over 70 minutes, after which I felt like giving it a standing ovation) confirmed the arrival of giant new talents who can pull off pathos and beauty with the best of them.
Curtains (Polygram ‘97) Rating: A-
By now you should know what to expect from Tindersticks, and those of you who liked (or if you’re like me, loved) their first two albums should also find this third installment inviting. Personally, I think that there’s more down time and less first rate songs here, but the overall end result is still mighty impressive. Some of the songs are exceedingly sparse, relying on Staples’ vampiric vocals to croon or mumble sing along with subdued instrumentation (i.e. brushed drums, bass and lead guitar, pretty piano/vibraphones). But the album, which unsurprisingly runs on for a draining 65 minutes, is also more ornately arranged on the whole, with sweeping (as opposed to creaky) strings often being featured prominently. Sure, some of these not-quite-as-involving songs merely serve as pleasant mood music, and there’s less going on in the background to occupy listeners. However, though the album is less mysterious and more straightforward than its predecessors, Curtains still has its fair share of shadowy atmospherics, and the music is again both beautiful and dramatic (sometimes overly so). Sad too, of course - when Staples sings “you try to fall in love again,” failure seems inevitable. And though it’s not the place to start with this press shy band (you might as well start at the brilliant beginning), Curtains further cemented Tindersticks’ reputation as the current masters of mope.
Can Our Love… (Beggars Banquet ‘01) Rating: A-
After proving themselves masters of doom and gloom by delivering three hauntingly atmospheric and often brilliant albums, Tindersticks’ reward was to find themselves without any American distribution for their fourth album, Simple Pleasure. Now with Beggars Banquet, Tindersticks returns to the U.S. with their fifth studio album, Can Our Love…, which is predictably excellent but in a most unexpected manner. First of all, at 8 songs and a mere 46 minutes long, Can Our Love… is almost like an EP compared to their earlier albums, which ran on for well over an hour. The album begins on familiar ground with a depressing, string-laden song of regret, “Dying Slowly.” Lyrics like “this dying slowly, it seemed better than shooting myself” are as bleak as can possibly be, and when Staples sings “I’m just tired” he sure sounds it. But Staples pokes fun of his deadly serious nature on the pretty, understated “Don’t Ever Get Tired” by urging listeners to “learn to laugh,” though “No Man In The World” returns to more morose themes (“still feel the pain”) with a typically plodding tempo. Elsewhere, "Tricklin’” is a simple 2-minute filler that at least demonstrates the band’s newly pared down sound, while “Chilitetime” ends the album on a dramatic note with an exciting, jam-filled epic. But what really distinguishes this album from its American-released predecessors are three soul-based songs on which the band’s mood brightens and a newfound versatility is revealed. For example, “People Keep Comin’ Around” quickly settles along into a long, hot groove. Tindersticks has been many things before, but they’ve certainly never sounded so sexy (and Staples has never sounded so normal), as strings, horns, and vibraphones weave around airy vocals to produce an effortlessly inviting and surprisingly light triumph that’s capped off by a memorable guitar solo. The title track is most notable for its fluid sex guitar straight from the Marvin Gaye handbook circa Let’s Get It On, its repeatedly articulated mantra (“can our love grow any further?”), and some impressive interplay as strings and horns enter the fray. Finally, optimistic lyrics (“give me that sweet dream”) and another seductive groove highlights “Sweet Release,” whose exotic textures go on for (an admittedly overly long) 9 minutes. Can Our Love… is a more upbeat and less mysterious collection than earlier efforts, but rather than continue in the same style that Tindersticks had immediately perfected, the band’s increased versatility is an encouraging sign of their ongoing vitality. Their sound may not be as instantly unforgettable as in their brooding past, but repeat listens of Can Our Love… reveals Tindersticks to be a more accessible and equally accomplished band. Having already made their moody mark, the band confidently continues to move forward in an impressively less forlorn fashion. Let’s hope that America notices this time. Note: Having heard Simple Pleasure after writing this review, I feel compelled to at least note that the transformation of Tindersticks actually started on that similarly accomplished album, which I also recommend.
Waiting For The Moon (Beggars Banquet ‘03) Rating: A-
Only Tindersticks could transform a song that begins with the line, “my hands around your throat, if I kill you now, well, they’ll never know” into the most tender of ballads. Then again, Tindersticks have never been an ordinary band, and they add just enough new wrinkles to each new album to ensure that they remain a vital force, if only to a small cult following who know that Tindersticks makes sad and lonesome late night music like no other. So what are those wrinkles this time out? For one, the band’s secret weapon (damn, he should’ve been in my “secret weapons” article), Dickon Hinchliffe, is more of a vocal presence, singing lead on the fantastic aforementioned first track, “Until The Morning Comes,” but also on “Sweet Memory,” a romantic (“no I never want to spend another day, not a single moment, from your side”) lullaby-like ballad. Hinchliffe also helps out considerably on “Trying To Find A Home” with some lightly hummable backing vocals, while his lush string arrangements all but envelop that song and “My Oblivion,” recalling the ambiance of their somewhat overlooked third album, Curtains. The band recalls past successes elsewhere as well, but rather than seeming like pale recreations, one gets the impression instead of a band simply playing to, and consolidating, their strengths. Of course, their greatest strength remains the ridiculously deep baritone of Stuart Staples; only he could repeat a lyric like “running wild in my mind and I can’t sleep tonight” and make you feel like your mother just died. Unfortunately, he’s never quite ditched his propensity to mumble almost inaudibly, a weakness that’s most apparent on “4:48 Psychosis.” Much will likely be made of this song, since it takes its lyrics directly from a play by Sarah Kane, a tragic figure (no wonder the band gravitated towards her) who committed suicide at age 28. Fortunately, though you can barely make out a single word Staples is singing (mumbling is more like it), the song (a rare Tindersticks rock song) is really all about its riff-based groove, anyway, and as such it (like every song here) is a success despite its imperfections. Elsewhere, “Say Goodbye To The City” is a darker, somewhat discordant drama that harks back to their earliest records. Tindersticks hasn’t sounded so dangerous in some time, but the gently loping melody of “Just A Dog” is almost upbeat (a first?), almost as if the band is intent on showing off the full range of their repertoire. They pretty much do just that (though the soul trappings that recently came to the fore have receded into the background, there’s no denying that songs such as the title track are eminently soulful), and all in a very manageable 45-minutes, too. They even add another classic duet, this one with Lhasa de Sela, who can be added to the list of previous show stopping appearances by the likes of Carla Torgerson, Ann Magnuson, and Isabella Rossellini. The song’s fittingly sad denouement (“you’re wasting your time coming around here”) definitely doesn’t apply to Tindersticks, who continue to craft impeccable mood music along with memorable songs (the former is rarely accompanied by the latter). As such, Waiting For The Moon is another impressive addition to an increasingly imposing back catalogue (though I suspect that their phenomenal first two albums will always remain their very best), as Tindersticks continue to exist in their own vacuum (indeed, within their own genre), seemingly oblivious to musical trends and all the better for it.
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