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Tindersticks

+ {Asphalt Ribbons} + {Stuart A. Staples}

Long the connoisseur’s choice as the most majestically miserable and preternaturally talented band in Britain, TINDERSTICKS make few concessions to joie de vivre and even less to fashion. After the almost universal critical praise lavished on their debut album, lounge-esque singer/crooner Stuart A. Staples and Co proceeded to plot an unswerving course through popular music’s darker, more melancholy corners, places inhabited by intense individualists like NICK CAVE, JOHNNY CASH, SCOTT WALKER, TOM WAITS and LEE HAZLEWOOD.
Formed in Nottingham, England, one could trace their roots back to1988, when, as ASPHALT RIBBONS, vocalist/guitarist Staples, organist/accordion-player Dave Boulter (who’d superseded Rob Howard) cellist Gaynor Backhouse, bassist Garry A. Watt and guitarist Neil Fraser, delivered their inaugural indie platter, `The Orchard E.P.’, for In-Tape Records, in 1989. When Fraser’s place was filled by Craig Chettle and a drummer (Will Carles) was added, a second Jon Langford/THREE JOHNS single, `Good Love’, also choked. Dogged by subsequent personnel changes when Dickon Hinchliffe (violin/guitar) replaced both Backhouse and Carles, ASPHALT RIBBONS looked to be hanging on by a thread. After a second E.P. release for Tiger Lily Records: `Passion, Coolness, Indifference, Boredom, Mockery, Contempt, Disgust’, went virtually unnoticed, bassist John Thompson took over from Watt, while the addition of drummer Al Macaulay made up the numbers that struck out with the low-key debut set, THE HORSE (1991) {*4}; when Mark Colwill joined, new names were duly put into the pot – time abroad left Staples to arrive at TINDERSTICKS.
Abandoning their previous TRIFFIDS/GO-BETWEENS-esque indie attempts, the sextet – Fraser now back in the fray – adopted a darkly brooding hybrid of faded-glamour easy-listening and semi-acoustic strumming, incorporating swooning strings, mournful violin, frantic flamenco and hints of country. Surely the heartbroken, doomed romantic to top all doomed romantics, Stuart’s low-key mumblings were somehow utterly compelling, his often barely audible melange of the aforementioned CAVE, HAZLEWOOD and WAITS capable of expressing every nuance in the music regardless of what he was actually saying.
On the back of the melodious `Patchwork’ 7” (double-AA: `Milky Teeth’), TINDERSTICKS came to critical notice with only their second single, `Marbles’, a lo-fi Staples monologue cosseted by an aching melody. Both released on their own Tippy Toe label (the latter endorsed by Che Trading Records), the track was unanimously awarded Single Of The Week by both the NME and Melody Maker, creating a buzz which would eventually see the group issue further one-offs for Rough Trade (`A Marriage Made In Heaven’, featuring HUGGY BEAR’s Niki Sin) and Domino Records (the `Unwired’ EP); the latter highlighted a BOWIE cover, `Kooks’.
Signed up to the newly formed This Way Up imprint, the ‘Sticks previewed a glorious debut LP with the string-drenched melancholy of the `City Sickness’ single; the eponymous TINDERSTICKS (1993) {*9} was to top a busy year for the band. A dense, bleakly beautiful, seedily glamorous near 80-minute epic, the double-album was so strikingly different from anything else around (save for maybe GALLON DRUNK or NICK CAVE) it sounded timeless. From the edgy resignation of `Whiskey & Water’ to the lovelorn lament of `Raindrops’, this was one of the most luxuriantly dark albums of the 90s, reeking of failed relationships and nicotine-stained despair. With gushing praise from the music press, both for the album and their hypnotic live shows, TINDERSTICKS even managed to steal a Top 60 chart placing, buoyed by fresh takes of past 45s. Released simultaneously with the album was a cover of JOHN BARRY’s `We Have All The Time In The World’ (and the `James Bond Theme’) flipped with GALLON DRUNK on a Clawfist-endorsed 7″; the latter combo’s Terry Edwards, having guested on the album and subsequently adding string arrangements on their next long player, played horns.
Preceded by a cover of TOWNES VAN ZANDT’s `Kathleen’ and moody minor hit `No More Affairs’, a second eponymous set, TINDERSTICKS {*8} – aka “The Second Tindersticks Album “ – was finally released in the spring of ‘95, its grainy noir narratives and downtrodden country enhanced with exquisite orchestration. There were no great stylistic leaps, just a further exploration and refinement of the blurred shadows and twilit corners that graced the debut. An undisputed star was the goose-bump country duet with The WALKABOUTS’ Carla Torgerson: `Travelling Light’, released as a single that summer.
TINDERSTICKS were also in the process of refining their live sound, or rather expanding it, with the help of a full orchestra; the gorgeous results can be heard on concert set, THE BLOOMSBURY THEATRE 12.3.95 (1995) {*6}. Unable to sustain such a money draining enterprise for too long, the TINDERSTICKS-plus-orchestra phase reached its zenith during a hugely successful week-long residency at London’s ICA theatre in late ‘96.
Given their love of tasteful orchestration and celluloid meditation, it was probably only a matter of time before Staples and Co recorded a soundtrack of their own. That soundtrack was to be French director Claire Denis’ NENETTE ET BONI (1996) {*7}, a low-key coming-of-age drama set in Marseilles. Largely instrumental, the piano and bass-led main theme was fleshed out with the moving `Petites Gouttes D’Eau’ (aka: treasure track `Tiny Tears’ from the second album); hardly essential but a pleasant listen all the same. TINDERSTICKS were no stranger to instrumental pieces, but the release of a full-length score/OST largely bereft of Staples’ stately croon was perhaps a bit of a gamble. Or at least an experiment, and one which turned out surprisingly well given the centrality of his vocal in the overall scheme of things. For the most part this was beguiling mood music, with only the most tantalising hint of the singer’s lugubrious rumble. A sonorous HORACE SILVER-like bass part, brushed percussive shuffle and expectant, three-note piano motif recur like some half-remembered, vaguely ominous dream, skilfully knitting the whole thing together, serving as a palette for extra instrumental layers (like the droning pump organ on closer `Rumba’) and making way for eerie, loping diversions like `Petites Chiennes’. With or without its screen accompaniment, this was a record to be savoured, a kind of cocktail jazz-noir minus the kitsch affectation and with all the haunting grace of TINDERSTICKS’ finest moments.
Following the group’s own fears that the fragile balance of TINDERSTICKS’ muse was becoming unworkable, the difficult third album proper, CURTAINS (1997) {*8} was finally unveiled in a fevered rush of creativity. Less sprawling and more cohesive than previous efforts, it was also bolder and more accessible, Staples actually singing comprehensibly on the bulk of the tracks. Predictably, there were also more strings than ever, Hinchliffe’s orchestral flourishes crescendo-ing majestically on `Don’t Look Down’ and achieving a pathos only previously glimpsed before on `Lets Pretend’; Jesus Alemany’s mariachi-style trumpet a bittersweet counterpart. There was even another country duet, `Buried Bones’, a brilliantly executed HAZLEWOOD/SINATRA-style sparring match featuring the velvet tones of BONGWATER’s Ann Magnusson. Lyrically, the themes remained reliably unchanged, tales of everyday lust and disillusionment dripping from Stu’s lips like the honey from his claws as described in the gripping, unsettling `Bearsuit’. And, with `Ballad Of Tindersticks’, Staples indicated that they don’t take this music business lark too seriously. After a stop-gap “best of” album was released in ‘98, TINDERSTICKS were back to their mournful best courtesy of 1999’s SIMPLE PLEASURE {*8}. Opening with the minor hit, `Can We Start Again?’ and then a cover of ODYSSEY’s cuddle-up hit(!), `If You’re Looking For A Way Out’, it was clear to see the familiar ‘Sticks territory had been given a modern day injection.
Switching from Island Records to Beggars Banquet was perhaps the only possible thing to happen to a transient group who seemed always on the fringes of a major breakthrough. The dark melancholic set CAN OUR LOVE… (2001) {*7} only seemed to compound their fears of failure when it peaked at a lowly No.47. A jazzy, but yet still pedestrian release, Staples’ crooning, brooding, COHEN-esque vocals reached new heights of intimacy on songs such as `Dying Slowly’ and the 8-minute `Sweet Release’.
TINDERSTICKS returned six months later with the soundtrack to friend Claire Denis’ controversial post-feminist movie TROUBLE EVERY DAY (2001) {*6}. As usual, the tone set was a dark one, Staples providing only one vocal track, although to eerie and frightening effect. Denis’ meditative directorial pace and the sextet’s brooding instrumentals proved such sympathetic bedfellows and in art-house subject matter and musical strategy, this was more lugubrious proposition (now there’s an adjective that’s never been used in the same breath as TINDERSTICKS before…) than the band’s previous – and really rather groovy – soundtrack project.
It was actually pretty fortunate in that Staples, Hinchliffe, et al, were one of only a slim cadre of artists who could even begin to attempt to elucidate the murky, oppressive emotional depths in her controversial tale of urban cannibalism. They did so by means of a heavily orchestrated – and almost wholly instrumental – score, bookended by two vocal cues and punctuated by tentative, jazzy interludes. Not jazzy in the martini-chinking sense of “Nenette…”, but in the portentous, Duende-rich sense of “Sketches Of Spain”.
It was not exactly a comfortable listen and the fact that even something as nominally doleful as a tolling bell gave intermittent relief in `Notre Dame’, imparted a flavour of the record’s unrelenting despondency. Staples’ funeral parlour croon was that despondency incarnate, embalming the soundtrack from both ends. Swathes of elegant, Hinchliffe-arranged strings, spryly-plucked violin and dolorous piano accompany his singer on the opening titles, while the violinist joined him for a rare duet at the end.
It’s those recurring string motifs which carry much of the dramatic impetus, rising and swaying but always inevitably buckling under their own weight. Carpeted with creeping bongos and in counterpoint with ominous, oscillating cello, they achieve a catharsis of sorts on `Killing Theme’, yet so minimalist and filled with silence and shadows are some of these compositions that one may well find yourself checking one’s fuse box for a power cut. This is the sound of TINDERSTICKS in their element; they don’t need actual songs to luxuriate in despair, and the lack of them shouldn’t negate their achievement in what promised to be a rewarding cinematic career.
If there was any justice, TINDERSTICKS would’ve been bigger than OASIS; as it was they remained a treasured secret for anyone who’d ever glimpsed the universe through the bottom of a wine glass. For WAITING FOR THE MOON (2003) {*6}, the band signalled both their ability and willingness to follow their dark musical whims seemingly indefinitely, with only occasional fine tuning. And if they could still create sound-lyric atmospherics as menacingly vivid as opener `Until The Morning Comes’, that could only be a good thing. Time then to tie-up a few loose ends by way of Island Years double-CD compilation, “Working For The Man” (2004), highlighting covers of OTIS REDDING’s `I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’ and PAVEMENT’s `Here’, but not, incidentally, R. DEAN TAYLOR’s `Shadow’ or The FOUR TOPS’ `What Is A Man’.
With no new material on the horizon, fans desperate for their next fix of misery could take solace in a STUART A. STAPLES solo debut: LUCKY DOG RECORDINGS 03-04 (2005) {*7}. Similar to the band’s soundtrack diversions, this was never likely to deviate too much from the chamber-croon blueprint. Originating in a clutch of home-recorded sketches sans strings, the record roped in the likes of Terry Edwards and scoresmith YANN TIERSEN for subtle elaboration rather than any real fleshing-out. STAPLES always had a spiritual home in Nashville, but LEAVING SONGS (2006) {*7}, was his first time recording there. Following on from his earlier boy-girl duets, he took the opportunity to ruminate alongside alt-country girl MARIA McKEE and world music dame Llasa De Sela.
TINDERSTICKS re-grouped in 2007, although absent from the party was fresh filmscore recruit DICKON HINCHLIFFE, who’d already supplied music for Rowan Atkinson-vehicle, “Keeping Mum” (2005). Now revolving around Staples, Boulter and Fraser, plus newbies Dan McKinna (bass) and Thomas Belhorn (drums), a 5-year hiatus was put aside when THE HUNGRY SAW (2008) {*7} emerged out of the blue. And when one says blue, it’s blue with a capital B. Augmented by the voice rather than words of Suzanne Osborne, and, as always, when requested, the horns of Terry Edwards, tracks such as `All The Love’, `The Other Side Of This World’, `Mother Dear’ and the pop-fuelled `Boobar Come Back To Me’, were made all that more dramatic and, dare one say it, cinematic.
Reshuffling the pack with Belhorn’s replacement, Earl Harvin, and adding Dublin-born soloist, David Kitt (albeit for one album), 2010’s FALLING DOWN A MOUNTAIN {*7} – their first and only for 4 a.d. Records – TINDERSTICKS bounced back like a fantasy NICK CAVE backed by strings conducted by MORRICONE. Simmering but simplistic, `Hubbards Hill’ (an instrumental), `She Rode Me Down’, `No Place So Alone’ and the driving beat of `Black Smoke’, were perfect tunes to wind-down the day.
Now free to break from the ties of a major independent label (and they’d been through several in their day), TINDERSTICKS branched out on Lucky Dog, a label that was normally used to deliver their mail-order/web material. Returning to the Top 60 for the first time in years with album number nine, THE SOMETHING RAIN (2012) {*7}, languid lounge and jilted jazz best described the haunting `A Night So Still’ and `Come Inside’. Opening with the mildly explicit `Chocolate’, a 9-minute reading by Boulter, and backed by some nocturnal sax, glockenspiel, keys, etc., the record had other fine points in the soulful `This Fire Of Autumn’. An almost song-for-song concert set, SAN SEBASTIAN 2012 {*5}, was a tad unnecessary and strictly for the fans.
It was only a matter of time before TINDERSTICKS looked to get in on the soundtrack game again, and in Claire Denis’ LES SALAUDS (2013) {*7}, there was further opportunity to explore and compose tracks without the solemn wordplay of Staples; although like its predecessors, the man was afforded one song, this time by bookending double-takes of HOT CHOCOLATE’s `Put Your Love In Me’. Reminiscent of POPOL VUH in their “Aguirre” minimalist heyday (e.g. `Elevator’, `Night Time Cigarettes’ and `Night Time Woods’) or even a bouncy GOBLIN (on the 6-minute `Low Life’), TINDERSTICKS had once again come up trumps.
The same could not be said for what was basically a run-through of older, re-worked songs: ACROSS SIX LEAP YEARS (2013) {*6}. Released only weeks after their original score, loyal fans might like to get in second helpings from a different plate on the likes of `Friday Night’, `If You’re Looking For A Way Out’, `She’s Gone’, `Sleepy Song’, et al, but it should’ve been strictly one for their web-pot.
In the can for two years plus, the score to an exhibition commissioned by the Flanders Field Museum, YPRES (2014) {*6} – entitled thus as to commemorate the ruined town in Belgium where a multitude of WWI soldiers lost their lives – TINDERSTICKS and collaborator Lucy Watkins chose a fitting time to release its counterpart instrumental album. Verging on modern classical, its structure and atmosphere came from the church it was recorded in, while its six pieces, split into rooms and muted segments, centred on the sombre subject matter. Bookended by epic opuses, `Room 1: Whispering Guns, Pts. 1, 2 and 3’ and `The Third Battle Of Ypres O.S.T.’, Staples and Co contributed the right amount of melancholy without being unobtrusive.
For a long time at home with their soundtrack status, TINDERSTICKS accompanied 2016’s THE WAITING GAME {*7} with cinematic shorts directed by the likes of Christoph Girardet, Rosie Pedlow and, of course, Claire Denis. The quivering and maudlin Staples plucked on the aching heart-strings of the listener with orchestra strings (or even brass), to tie-in with the tension of each cool groove. While the group roped in SAVAGES singer Jehnny Beth to egg out the passion on `We Are Dreamers!’, the most poignant and posthumous statement was when Staples performed a duet, `Hey Lucinda’, with the late Lhasa de Sela, who tragically died of breast cancer in 2010, aged only 37. A lush, lounge lizard lilting over the BACHARACH-ish `Like Only Lovers Can’, Staples wore his heart firmly on his sleeve (as he did on `Second Chance Man’ and the FERRY-cloned `Help Yourself’), while the mood-enhancing instrumental opener, `Follow Me’ (scribed by Bronislau Kaper for the Mutiny On The Bounty OST), was certainly one for fans of TINDERSTICKS’ filmic fascinations.
© MC Strong 1995-2008/BG-GRD/LCS // rev-up MCS Dec2013-Jan2016

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