Barring soundtrack work, live albums and other miscellanea, one could easily leap blindly into any stage of the Tindersticks catalog and get a pretty good grasp on what the British chamber pop troupe is about. And there’s an equally solid chance that this very same novice to the Tindersticks way would become quickly enamored with their nocturnal, lushly arranged dramatic pop songs. In nearly two decades, Stuart Staples, David Boutler and Neil Fraser, as well as a rotating supporting cast, have maintained a continual refinement of their elegant and stylish aesthetic, always progressing and remaining fluid, but never betraying their Scott Walker-inspired orchestral pop origins.
In spite of Tindersticks’ consistency and their unending dedication to smoky cool sounds and breathtaking songwriting, however, they don’t always give the listener the easiest of ins. Their first self-titled album, which is considered their true masterpiece (or first of several, anyhow), is their most direct and accessible, starting off with the punchy “Nectar” before transitioning into equally wonderful dark pop gems like “Blood” and “City Sickness.” But after 18 years, the band has grown more comfortable with adding artier, less immediate context to their endlessly intriguing and texturally stunning compositions, as they make perfectly clear from the beginning of their ninth album, The Something Rain. The first track on the album, “Chocolate,” is a nine-minute spoken word piece, albeit one with sumptuous atmosphere and characteristically stunning instrumentation. But just as much as the band is willing to throw its listeners a curve, they also reward those with the patience to invest in their indulgences: as David Boutler concludes his narration, he caps his tale with an unexpected and humorous reveal, which should also serve as a reminder that the long-running British act performs their smoke and red wine soaked act with a smile.
Following that lengthy opening piece and its unexpected plot twists, The Something Rain mostly returns to what Tindersticks does best: melancholy, jazz-inflected pop compositions layered with rich instrumentation, romantic atmosphere and a sense of intrigue and mystery with which few bands can compete. And, of course, there’s also Staples’ voice, a gentle, soulful baritone that I’ve gone on record as calling “the coolest.” Songs like the hypnotic dirge “A Night So Still” illustrate perfectly what Tindersticks does best. It’s a beautiful song, and a haunting one, its gorgeous minor key juxtapositions of vibraphone, guitar and keyboards laying the perfect backdrop for a night of passionate lovemaking or having someone whacked. When the band quickens their tempo, they never really rock out, so to speak, but even a slight rise in bpms makes a considerable difference. “This Fire of Autumn” is soulful and catchy, but likewise steeped in all of the band’s typically dark beauty, and Staples’ subtly fiery delivery. Similarly, the atmospheric pulse of “Frozen” has a vague drum ‘n’ bass vibe to it, albeit made a touch more dissonant and gothic.
Were a newcomer to choose Tindersticks’ The Something Rain as a starting point for the band’s atmospheric noir, he might find it an initially abstract and strange piece of art. But it’s also an album very much in the spirit of Tindersticks’ refined aesthetic. It’s a beautifully arranged, yet dimly lit experience whose magnificent charms will intoxicate any listener who so chooses to consume it.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Let Love In
The National – Boxer
Leonard Cohen – New Skin for the Old Ceremony
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.