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Have you never been mellow? Have you never tried? Not to worryTindersticks are here to help. The Nottingham-based six-piece has been softening the edges since 1993, the year the group’s eponymous debut racked up miles of column inches in the British music press. Never mind Nirvana. Forget, even, the mother country’s own Polly Jean Harvey, who actually issued not one but two still-amazing discs a decade ago. According to Melody Maker, this bunch of pasty-faced sad sacks managed an album-of-the-year masterpiece on their very first try.
Ten years out, you can almost understand the logic. Bluster and irony make mighty cold bedfellows, after all, and mope-a-dopes though they are, the ‘Sticks turn in a brand of melancholy that at least tries a little tenderness. Slow-motion rhythms, swelling arrangements, and sensitive front dude Stuart Staples’ croaking baritone are the band’s can’t-miss trademarks, a knack for unrepentant drama its in-concert ace in the hole. (The group has issued two live albums full of it, in fact, and French auteur Claire Denis has commissioned soundtrack work from the band twice.) Plus, when it comes to sonic ambience, these guys are all about warm, tube-amplified glow: Hand ’em a laptop, and they’ll probably start typing out The Waste Land.
Admittedly, if you’re not in the mood for fragile and theatrical, Tindersticks can sometimes seem a little needy. So it’s a good thing indeed that the group also has a droll sense of humor. It’s covered Pavement’s brooding “Here” to totally charming effect, for instance, and a recent U.K.-only EP was dubbed Don’t Even Go There. Waiting for the Moon, the group’s sixth studio LP, begins with “Until the Morning Comes,” a tuneful little lullaby that opens with Staples contemplating murder: “My hands ’round your throat,” he croons softly over the track’s gently strummed acoustic guitar. “If I kill you now, well, they’ll never know.”
It isn’t the disc’s best number, but the winking murder ballad sets exactly the right mood: scary, sad, and definitely sly. The rest of the album tries its damnedest to keep up the vibe. “Say Goodbye to the City,” for example, is an insistent, violin-fueled spy-flick theme whose staccato rhythm twice builds to a strings-and-brass frenzy before the song finally fades. And “Sweet Memory” features a deftly mixed string section that taps into both Igor Stravinsky and, all too briefly, the Electric Light Orchestra. Even better, the album’s title track comes on like Tom Waits and Nick Cave unearthing the creepiest Disney tune you’ve ever heard. While the band does its best to approximate a music box in bad need of a wind, Staples meditates on the nighttime sky: “Sometimes it turns like a knife in me,” allows Mr. Happy. “But not tonight.”
Staples is in fine, somber voice throughout Waiting for the Moon, but his dramatic monologues would be dry stuff without his ensemble’s fine playing. Keyboardist David Boutler swathes most of the disc’s tunes in a warm blanket of piano and organ, shining in particular on “Trying to Find a Home,” a gospel-inflected update of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” tricked out with plinking, treble-clef piano fills. Violinist/
guitarist Dickon Hinchliffe earns his keep, too, transforming a slow-burner like “My Oblivion” into a powerhouse showstopper with just his trusty fiddle, which, thanks to generous quantities of multitracking, swells to orchestral proportions on much of the album. And the catchiest tune on the disc, the lite-pop anthem “Sometimes It Hurts,” is powered in part by Lhasa De Sala, a French-Canadian world-music chanteuse who sweetens Staples’ soulful foreboding with her own sultry set of pipes.
But the show belongs mainly to Staples, who along with Ian Caple (producer/engineer for everyone from a-ha to Tricky) has twiddled the knobs for maximum intimacy. It’s a risky tack, of course: If the tunes blow, there’s not much in the way of studio sheen to distract listenersor, at the very least, to put a little distance between them and this bunch of oversensitive artist types.
Though the tunes on Waiting for the Moon mostly don’t blow, the disc does misfire occasionally. On “4:48 Psychosis,” Staples recites lines from Sarah Kane’s play of the same title while the band serves up a portentous batch of improvised psychedelia behind him. And even though Staples is justifiably lauded for his literary way with words, the album’s lyrics are sometimes just well-wrought place-holders, chanted (and frequently lovelorn) incantations there more for the sake of the disc’s gorgeous melodies than for any insightor even mere clevernessthey might contain. The meandering “Running Wild,” for instance, turns on its mundane title image and Staples’ so-what complaint that he “can’t sleep tonight.” It’s also true that, band-booster protestations aside, the comparisons to Cave that the ‘Sticks have earned over the years remain as accurate as ever.
That’s not a complaint, exactlyjust an acknowledgment that there’s nothing on Waiting for the Moon you haven’t heard on, say, The Good Son or Henry’s Dream. But earth-shattering originality isn’t what you look to Tindersticks for anyway. Indeed, Staples himself has claimed that this time out the band was merely trying to rekindle the creative spark that fired the first album.
There’s no telling, of course, if the famously mercurial British music press will play along this time. But song for song, Waiting for the Moon holds up just fine compared with the group’s earlier work, Tindersticks included. It’s no record of the year, mind you. But when rockin’ contenders from the likes of the White Stripes and the Libertines wear out their welcome, you can count on Tindersticks’ latest for a peaceful, if slightly uneasy, feeling. CP