[14 May 2008]
And so begins a new era for those UK princes of indie melancholia, Tindersticks. The sextet became critical darlings in mid-‘90s England with a trio of brilliant albums that combined Leonard Cohen’s morose baritone vocals with ragged indie rock and the over-the-top majesty of Scott Walker. Circa the new millennium, the band’s sound simmered a bit, but they maintained a steady string of strong releases. In 2003, however, the members drifted their separate ways. Today, Tindersticks returns as a remodeled quintet. The intervening years saw two albums from crooning frontman Stuart A. Staples, on which he established himself as a quite capable solo artist. So why duck back under the old Tindersticks umbrella again?
In September 2006, the full band reunited, along with a string section and a couple of brass players, in order to perform their second self-titled album in its entirety. Part of the same “Don’t Look Back” series that’s seen Sonic Youth recreate Daydream Nation, Tindersticks played their eponymous 1995 masterpiece (sometimes called Tindersticks II) and felt a rekindled fondness for each other’s company… or, at least, half of each other’s company.
From 1992 to 2003, the group was comprised of these six guys: Stuart Staples sang and strummed a bit, Neil Fraser gave good guitar, Dave Boulter hit the keys, Dickon Hinchliffe fiddled with his violin, Alasdair Macauley did the drumming, and Mark Colwill was based in bass operations. Today, you can say goodbye to those last three names, for they are members of Tindersticks no more. The group’s new rhythm section consists of bassist Dan McKinna and drummer Thomas Belhom. As happens whenever a well-established act loses one or more of its founding members, the validity of the band name comes into question. How could Genesis still call themselves Genesis after Peter Gabriel’s departure? Should “Van Hagar” have become a certain rock group’s official sobriquet after Diamond Dave moved on and Sammy stepped in? Are Tindersticks still Tindersticks without the lush, romantic violin lines of Dickon Hinchliffe? Is The Hungry Saw just another Stuart A. Staples solo album? The answers to the first two questions are “God only knows” and “Yes, but, better yet, they should’ve just called it quits.”
As to the more immediate inquiries at hand, well, the music speaks for itself. Tindersticks’ seventh proper studio album finds the revamped band sounding much like it has since 1999, when they gave up on grandiosity and settled into a series of standard-length discs that ranged from good to very good and featured far less bombast, experimentation, and orchestration than their initial trio of double-LPs. So, the paired-down sound of The Hungry Saw is really nothing new. Hinchliffe hadn’t been contributing as strongly to the band for years, anyway, so he isn’t missed much here. He’s also occasionally compensated for by the string arrangements of Lucy Wilkins, which lend a touch of that old ‘Sticks filmic grace to the new songs. McKinna and Belhom appear to be handy with the group’s dynamics, too. Tindersticks also reunite with longtime collaborator trumpeter Terry Edwards to lead the brass, and producer Ian Caple is back behind the glass.
Don’t get fooled by all this talk of “strings” and “brass”, though. This ornamental instrumentation is used quite sparingly. The exceptionally good title track, for instance, is merely padded with legato lines of low-lying horns. Still, it is this extra touch, along with a less predictable chord progression, that clearly marks “The Hungry Saw” a Tindersticks track. Boulter and Fraser possess quirkier songwriting sensibilities than Staples, who has gravitated toward neat and tidy, classic structures on his solo efforts. More clearly branded by the Tindersticks sound is “The Organist Entertains”. This is the kind of goofy-yet-eerie instrumental cut that the group used to toss into the cauldrons of their early albums. Though the track isn’t terribly remarkable on its own, it is refreshingly and endearingly a classic Tindersticks number.
In fact, despite the absence of half the band’s original ranks, all of The Hungry Saw finds Tindersticks trekking through fairly familiar territory. Fortunately, they find new diversions along the way. “The Flicker of a Little Girl” owes a debt to Lee Hazlewood, one of the band’s big inspirations. “Yesterdays Tomorrows” employs a staccato guitar slash throughout its verse, like “London Calling” slowed to a saunter, before Edwards’s trumpet lifts the chorus to a higher plane. “Feel the Sun” is a sad and lovely waltz trio for piano, cello, and voice. The wonderful “Boobar”, with it’s call-and-response vocals, revives the R&B odes that dominated 1999’s Simple Pleasure. While none of these ideas are new for the group, the execution feels fresh and filled with renewed passion. The only time the band overtly look backward is on the instrumental “E Type”, a radical re-working of early b-side “E-Type Joe”, this time pumped up with a guitar set to heavy vibrato and an infusion of horns.
The Hungry Saw isn’t perfect, though, as the gang hit a couple of bumps along the way. “Mother Dear” begins spectral and dreary, only to end with an overly sentimental string part that Hinchliffe never would have permitted. “All the Love” is pretty, but, at nearly five minutes, doesn’t offer enough substance to justify its length. Fortunately, it leads into “The Turns We Took”, which is a sun-breaking-through-clouds killer of a finale.
A five-year break and some fresh blood have proven invigorating for Tindersticks. This formula certainly could have proved disastrous, so it’s a credit to the three original members that they’ve kept their vision intact. The band were making good music before they split, and the revamped lineup have picked up right where the previous incarnation left off. As it turns out, Tindersticks were only half-dead. Long live Tindersticks.