[6 June 2006]
We critics don’t often review albums by artists we love. More often than not, our appreciation for the acts whose works we’re evaluating ranges from knowing virtually nothing about a brand new band to possessing a healthy dose of admiration for a significant artist’s body of work. Generally, this is a good thing, allowing for at least some semblance of the kind of objectivity that’s meant to elevate critical thought above mere opinion or reactionary screed. Now, I don’t know if I buy into that mythology. The best music critics are also huge music fans, allowing us to convey our enthusiasm or our disappointment to our readers, investing our measured words with some gut-level juice. Still, it’s probably best not to strive for impartiality when we’re in the throes of love. When you’re wrapped up in that cocoon of adoration, clear thought isn’t exactly the order of the day.
It’s a good thing then, that, as I embark on this review of Leaving Songs, the second solo release from Tindersticks front man Stuart A. Staples, the year is 2006 instead of 1996. Ten years ago, the British sextet had released two astonishingly good self-titled albums, along with a pair of live albums and a healthy clutch of EPs and singles. And I owned it all, including the rare vinyl. At that time, they were my favorite band. And I possessed not one iota of objectivity. Everything they issued was genius to my ears, including the throwaway b-sides that consisted of little more than Dave Boutler noodling away on an organ. The fog of love began to lift with their third album, 1997’s Curtains. While still very strong and nearly great, the chinks in the armor started to show. By the time of 1999’s Simple Pleasures, I was still invested, but I needed to be impressed all over again, convinced, wooed. That album’s scaled-down, late-night R&B feel didn’t hit me as hard as those first three discs, with their themes of magnificent sadness and ragged, staggering, bitter, pent-up rage swirling through every note and each utterance from Staples, the mumbling, nasal crooner at the microphone.
For me, the once-rabid fan, the albums Tindersticks have released in the 2000s have been, mostly, just fine. 2003’s Waiting for the Moon was maybe even quite good. But I certainly don’t follow the band like I used to. For instance, I didn’t even know that Stuart Staples (why did that middle initial “A.” suddenly crop up?) had released a UK-only record in 2005, Lucky Dog Recordings 03-04. That album now serves as the bonus disc to Leaving Songs, his brand new effort and first album to be issued in the U.S. For Tindersticks fans both old and new, Leaving Songs will feel very comfortable. Along with keyboardist Boulter, Stuart brings in fellow ‘Sticks bandmate, guitarist Neil Fraser. Longtime collaborator Terry Edwards, whose brass playing has enhanced the Tindersticks sound from the get-go, also makes a few guest appearances.
Not surprisingly, this record sounds very much like a Tindersticks album. Or, rather, it sounds like a well-chosen compilation of that band’s more restrained and subdued material. The most notable difference between Staples solo and Staples with Tindersticks is the absence of Dickon Hinchliffe, the electric violinist who contributed largely to the melancholic grandeur of the band, especially in the earlier portion of their discography. Stripped of Dickon’s sad Romanticism, Staples steps forward as amore traditional songwriter on Leaving Songs, bringing to the fore the oddly wonderful combined influences of Al Green (in musical approach, not vocal timbre) and Lee Hazlewood (in many ways) that often worked as an undercurrent in Tindersticks. We can also see, retroactively, which of his band’s old songs were most likely his babies. A new track like “Already Gone” has its roots in the smoldering ache of 1995’s “Talk to Me”, while the moping boogie of “Which Way the Wind” (which actually does feature strings) shares its DNA with “Rented Rooms”. Then there are the duets, which have always been great treats on Tindersticks records. “This Road Is Long” features the greatly underappreciated Maria McKee, sharing a song of heartache with Staples and following in the footsteps of Carla Torgerson (from the Walkabouts) and, curiously, actresses Isabella Rossellini and Ann Magnuson, both of whom appeared on Curtains. Lhasa de Sela (better known simply as Lhasa) also provides an excellent foil for Stuart on “That Leaving Feeling”.
As you might have guessed from the titles of the songs and the album itself, Staples’s lyrical themes remain the same on Leaving Songs, where restlessness, doubt, and the fragility of human connections all conspire to ruin love. This is the country singer in Stuart, whose first band, the often-cheesy Asphalt Ribbons, flirted too closely with those influences. And it’s these western leanings, along with his love of soul, that likely drove him to choose Lambchop’s Mark Nevers to produce his new album. To borrow a Staples song title, the collaboration is a marriage made in heaven, and it’s executed very well. Stuart Staples infuses his melancholic singer-songwriterly compositions with tasteful dashes of country pathos and vintage R&B heartache. More than a side project, Leaving Songs is a very strong album that perfectly complements his body of work with Tindersticks.