Monday, March 23, 2009

Tindersticks - Just a simple pleasure?

Tindersticks arrived fully formed with their trademark sound in 1993. Their self-titled debut album defined their sound for pretty much the rest of their career. Vaguely melancholic music but containing sweeping dramatics, and featuring Stuart Staples' slurred croon. When I heard them first it sounded to me like Nick Cave on valium. The Spanish painting on the cover makes one think that something special lies within.

Their first album contains some classic songs, interspersed by moody pieces and instrumentals. It's a masterclass in mood creation, and the opening track Nectar does this perfectly. It's quite an insubstantial song in itself, but it works perfectly to open the album. Impossible to understand the lyrics, but there you go! Sweet Man is broken into 3 parts and spread over the 21 track album. The 2nd part, right in the middle of the album is particularly good, with wonderful lyrics like "I lay awake that night, listening to her breathing, thinking how strange it would be if I awoke and she wasn't there..."

There is a run of classic Tindersticks songs, beginning with City Sickness which for a long time was my favourite of their songs. Driven by a sweeping string section, it swoops in and out capturing urban ennui superbly. It leads into Patchwork which starts with a simple guitar figure and is a wonderful little tune, enhanced by some horns at the end. Marbles follows, which is mostly spoken, vague lines like "you knew you lost her as soon as you saw her, you saw your life as a series of complicated dance steps". The organ-driven music underneath for some reason reminds me of the Velvet Underground. Other tracks include Her which has a spanish feel to it with strummed guitars and mariachi-type horns.

The album is long and initially, somewhat overwhelming. It reminds me of dark, wet nights wandering cobblestoned streets in a small town in France while smoking Gitanes. But the album sets the template for the Tindersticks sound.

They followed this up with another self-titled album. Track 2, A Night In, opens with the line 'I had shoes full of holes when you first took me in' so instantly the mood is set as a continuation of the first album. My Sister follows, which is reminiscent of Marbles from the first album, with an atmospheric tale spoken over some coolly understated music featuring horns, xylophones, piano and none of it ever rising above a gently whisper. Tiny Tears is a little more dramatic. It starts off fairly bare with Stuart crooning over an acoustic guitar before the other instruments gradually arrive, swelling to a jaw-dropping chorus accompanied by strings.

No More Affairs is classic Tindersticks gloom. It feels like the protagonist is sitting drinking in a dark bar. Travelling Light on the other hand is the first of Stuart's occasional duets, trading lines with Carla Torgeson of the Walkabouts. Again orchestral in feel, it's probably their most recognisable song.

They followed this album with Curtains, which was a little disappointing, sounding like a pale imitation of the first 2 albums. Tindersticks-by-numbers, maybe? It was clear at this stage that the band were running the risk of becoming a parody of themselves. Although they sound consistently classy, how many Tindersticks songs could not be used to soundtrack a black and white French movie?

Something had to change and it did. Simple Pleasures was a dramatic change, from the nude on the cover to the the soul-infused music contained within. The first track, Can We Start Again, is startlingly upbeat, featuring handclaps and a jaunty melody bopping along breezily. A dramatic change in direction! The next track, If You're Looking For A Way Out, is a cover of an old soul tune and is rendered respectfully by the group. Staples' vocals are as tender as he gets, with a strong fade-out at the song's end. The rest of the album mines a similar vein, quite a departure from previous albums, full of gospel backing voals, soul horns and strings.

The follow-up album, Can Our Love... kicked off with a slab of old-school Tindersticks. Dying Slowly, from the title to the orchestral dramatics was a return to the Tindersticks I know and love. It's a bit of a red herring as the rest of the album is quite different, and indeed diverse. People Keep Comin' Around is a slightly Doors-influenced song, while the rest of the album is a return to the soul of Simple Pleasures, with arguably stronger songs. Don't Ever Get Tired is a standout with langorous guitar underpinning a strong melody. The guitar in the bridge is particularly effective.

Having got the soul out of their system, around this time they also released a soundtrack album to the harrowing Claire Denis movie, Trouble Every Day. The music is mostly instrumental and stands up quite well as moody background music. The main vocal track, Trouble Every Day is a strong Tindersticks song which stands up with the rest of their catalogue. Killing Theme is also a particularly evocative instrumental. In common with a lot of soundtrack albums there's a lot of 'incidental' music where not a lot happens.

Their next album proper (and last for 5 years) was Waiting for the Moon. The opening song is actually sung by the less distinctive (but more soulful) Dickon Hinchcliffe. The album is quite under-rated, it's kind of an overview of all the different styles Tindersticks have tried. Say Goodbye to the City is more of a classic Tindersticks type song, and is followed up by the wonderful soul song Sweet Memory. Again sung by Hinchliffe, it runs at a snail's pace. 4.48 Psychosis is based on a play of the same name written by Sarah Kane, inspired by the time of night which is apparently the darkest and one is most susceptible to suicide. The vocals are spoken rather than song while the music rages underneath. Most of the other songs on the album are quite lovely, Trying to Find a Home is quite soulful, as is Sometimes It Hurts, a great duet with Lhasa de Sela which builds nicely to a great chorus featuring prominent backing vocals. But for me the strongest song is the 7 minute My Oblivion which features strings, and vibraphone. It's hugely melodramatic and deeply lovely. A complete change of mood descends for the jaunty Just a Dog, then the album concludes with Running Wild, more dramatics enveloped by the string section which becomes more prominent as the song progresses.

Stuart released 2 solo albums, the erratic Lucky Dog Recordings, followed by Leaving Songs, a concept album about departure. It's really not a million miles away from Tindersticks, especially the opening track Goodbye to Old Friends. Most of the rest of the album is a bit lighter and sparser, and is notable for two duets, with Maria McKee and Lhasa de Sela. There is one accapella track, Dance with an Old Man, which doesn't really work.

After a gap of 5 years since their last album, Tindersticks reunited (albeit minus 3 of the original members) for the Hungry Saw. I've never been a fan of bands getting back together, it's seldom as good as the original stuff but Hungry Saw is just as good as their other albums. It starts off very strongly with an instrumental which leads into Yesterday's Tomorrows which is a strong, upbeat, soulful song. It's never going to be quite as intense an album as the first 2 but there is a lightness of touch which is, for want a better word, warm, and some strong songs also. The closing song, The Turns We Took, is really quite special. In a similar vein to Running Wild (the closer on Waiting for the Moon), it's like the end of something more than just a CD. It's highly emotive but on the other hand quite simple.

I finally caught them live in Vicar Street in Dublin in November 2008. There was a minimum of between-song chat but they seemed relaxed and the music was superb. Even the drunken idiot in front of us who kept calling for Tiny Tears didn't spoil the gig (she got chucked out eventually).

All in all, you either get it or you don't with this band. But if you do like their mood you'll seldom be disappointed by any of their music.