England’s Tindersticks may not be the ideal band to invite to your next kegger, but it would be hard to imagine a finer convoy to guide you through those subdued moments of absinthe-accompanied repose. The Nottingham group makes a decidedly continental sound, polished chamber-pop settings punctuated by Gallic acoustic guitar flourishes and timeless port-city debauchery. That last element is particularly well typified by the beautiful-loser tales spun by frontman Stuart Staples, a sepulchral-voiced singer who makes Leonard Cohen sound like Smokey Robinson.
The fluid aggregation (generally a sextet, but often inflated to big-band proportions by full string and horn sections) began releasing limited-edition, intricately hand-packaged 7- and 10-inches in 1992. While portions of those earlier EPs would turn up on later releases, Unwired contains a pair of fascinating, otherwise unavailable songs that expose Staples’ obsession with love’s bleaker side (“Rottweilers and Mace”) and his predilection for blacker-than-black humor (“Feeling Relatively Good”).
Tindersticks (the first one) is nothing short of a revelation. Clocking in at nearly 80 minutes, it wends through the darkest recesses of Staples’ psyche, revealing a fixation on bodily fluids — see “Blood,” “Jism” and “Nectar” — as well as a windswept passion that brings to mind the seascapes of coastal England, postcards of grey cliffs and crashing whitecaps. Ancillary instruments like muted trumpet and violin lurk forebodingly in the background of songs like “Tyed,” only to press to the fore on “Whiskey & Water” and the rapturously weary masterwork “City Sickness.” The elegantly wasted atmosphere can grow a bit oppressive by the close of the album-ending “The Not Knowing” (a mournful sonnet spiced with the strains of bassoon and oboe), but the temptation to re-enter is still pretty powerful. The Amsterdam concert captured on the first live set is a good one, but adds little to the material — other than “For Those Not So Beautiful,” drawn entirely from the studio album.
The 1995 Tindersticks (talk about letting the music speak for itself!) picks up where the debut left off — with Staples muttering reticent epithets into the murky corners of “El Diablo en el Ojo.” Every bit as diligent in its avoidance of standard rock shape-throwing, it’s still a more sonically open set: “A Night In” evokes images of Scott Walker holding down a piano-bar stool in the wee hours of a French morning, while the flamboyant “Snowy in F# Minor” actually elicits images of the band sitting around passing a bottle of port as a celebration, rather than a prelude to a coma. Staples remains the focal point, although his duets with Carla Torgerson of the Walkabouts (on “Travelling Light”) and Drugstore’s Isobel Monteiro cast him as an agreeably heavy Lee Hazlewood analog — more such collaborations would indeed be welcome. The Bloomsbury Theatre concert is a rather remarkable undertaking, recorded with the support of a 26-piece orchestra that’s indispensable without being overwhelming. The arrangements of “El Diablo en el Ojo” (on which the classical musicians offer only subtle enhancements) and the first LP’s “Drunk Tank” (utterly transformed by the stringed tempest) are enriched by the orchestral supplements, but they also retain their singularly intimate character, which is no mean feat. Maybe overkill isn’t so bad after all.