I’ve made a couple of mistakes when it comes to approaching the music of Britain’s Tindersticks. I’ll tell you the most recent one first. I obtained a digital copy for review of their latest and ninth album, The Something Rain, and I decided to give it a listen while doing some of the copyediting work that I do for PopMatters. I thought it’d be nice musical wallpaper as I went about my business applying my metaphorical red pen to articles written by others, knowing what I know about the band (and more on that later).
Well, that turns out to have been a Big Mistake. The opening track to the album is the nine-minute long “Chocolate” and it is a narrative song, similar to 1995’s “My Sister”, and I found that I couldn’t concentrate on the tasks I was trying to do at hand. Once David Boulter started talking over the musical accompaniment, I simply couldn’t function. I wanted to get closer to my computer speakers and really listen. And I mean really listen with all of the energy I could muster. Trying to edit written work and hear “Chocolate” at the same time was a little like trying to talk and blow bubblegum bubbles in tandem. I simply couldn’t do it. So I abandoned the copyediting for those nine glorious minutes, and got swept away in the story set to music that Boulter had to tell. And, boy, is it ever a doozy.
“Chocolate” is an evocative slice of Britannia, the simple story of a blue collar man who is coming to the end of his work day, “the perfect Friday afternoon”, and after heading to his bedsit for a moment, heads to a bar to play a little pool. Naturally, he meets a girl, they make small talk over things such as movies (“She even agreed On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was the best Bond film if you accept it as a whole and not just get hung up about George Lazenby”) and then they head out into the night for some “chippy” and then over to her place where she serves our narrator “proper hot chocolate, not the instant shit you get from a machine”.
Now, there’s a bit of a twist ending to this tale — one that I’m hesitant to give away for denying other listeners the pleasure of actually listening to the cut and hearing what happens for themselves — but, in all finality, “Chocolate” is about as perfect of a narrative song as they come, wrapped up in a shocking surprise as closure. Not so shocking, I suppose, if you’re a fan of ‘90s British cinema, but I’ll stay mum other than that as to not reveal what happens. “Chocolate” is descriptive, honest and jam-packed with all sorts of acute character observation.
It reminds me a bit of some of the prose-poetry songs of the Clientele and I had to wonder which came first: the chicken or the egg? Was the Clientele influenced by Tindersticks during their two decade long storied career, or was it the other way around? Probably the former, because, as noted above, this isn’t the first time that Tindersticks have put prose to music. I’m getting a bit off track here, however, because I haven’t even pounded the keyboard yet about the gorgeous, haunting melody that wraps itself around “Chocolate”. It starts out as with a gently strummed acoustic guitar and vibes gurgling underneath, gradually adding layers of instrumentation until it builds up into a controlled emotional release with a saxophone squealing in the background.
And then. And then. The song gets quiet again and slows its tempo as the couple approaches the apartment, adding an emotional sheen to the track. Granted, some of the music does get in the way of carefully discerning Boulter’s words. Still, “Chocolate” is an astounding and evocative opening track, one that doesn’t quite pave the way for the rest of the album, but works as a standalone piece that feels somewhat separate and removed from the remainder of The Something Rain—and yet strangely complimentary to it in feel at the same time.
I’d mentioned that I’d made more than one mistake in approaching the music of frontman Stuart A. Staples and company, and that mistake is probably worth mentioning. I’d actually managed to grab the self-titled 1993 debut album by the group when I was a 17-year-old youth in a small town, buoyed on by the propulsive organ driven single “Marbles”, which I had heard on a radio station mix compilation that I’d picked up. So I found Tindersticks (or Tindersticks I as it is sometimes known, as its follow-up was similarly untitled) on an excursion to a big city record shop and paid the hefty import price for it.
However, when I got it back to my house and my CD player, I was immediately disappointed. The rest of the album was lush, ballad-y material with Spanish touches to it, and I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I was more into the hard abrasive sounds of bands like Hüsker Dü, and I absolutely hated what I had heard on Tindersticks: it was just too rarefied and maudlin for my tastes. So I got rid of it sometime later when I went to a used CD store on another city excursion. Another Big Mistake, I now realize. At my current age of 36, I suppose I now have the maturity and wisdom, along with an expanded musical palette in my arsenal, to really appreciate what a band such as this is trying to do.
I bring this up, though, because it seems that I’m not the only one who has matured. Re-encountering Tindersticks some 20 years later, the band, too, has grown and changed its musical styling somewhat. Sure, they’re still low key and quiet, and, yes, Staples still sings with a controlled croon that sounds somewhat like a sneer, but The Something Rain shows a band dabbling in other forms of musical expression than I’d encountered all those years ago. This album has a jazzy, lounge-y, night-time vibe – the perfect thing to sip a glass of wine to long after the sun goes down. And while “Chocolate” may be something of a standout, there are plenty of other pleasures to be derived from The Something Rain.
“Show Me Everything” is a soulful number with a fuzzy guitar line that creeps up every now and then to give heft to the track, much in the same way that the background female vocalists provide the same function. Then there’s “Medicine”, which is the lead-off single, a soft and organic ballad underscored with gently played vibes and the emergence of a plaintive cello, a real chill-out song if there was one. And, well, there are other songs — nine in total, to be exact — and it is a testament to the album’s quality that the band is unafraid to let the songs unspool gradually at an exacting pace: six of the tracks surpass the five-minute mark, and their epic quality doesn’t diminish the overall feeling of luxury that is conjured up.
The Something Rain is an intriguing listen because it can function on two levels: it’s the type of record that demands rapt attention and the listener has to really sit up and listen to it to get the full intended effect, thanks to the fine craftsmanship in both lyricism and musicality that’s on display. However, aside from “Chocolate”, the album also works as a pleasant background soundtrack to “the perfect Friday afternoon”, the sort of thing that you can relax and unwind to. That dual utility makes The Something Rain a rich and compelling listen, sort of like, well, eating a fine concoction of incredibly smooth chocolate.
One thing is for certain: Tindersticks have changed, and so have I. It seems apparent to me now, based on the evidence of The Something Rain and my added enthusiasm for quieter, chamber-pop music, that I have a certain debut album that I must somehow reacquaint myself with and re-evaluate — if not an eight-album deep back-catalogue. In other words, I really need to rectify one of my Big Mistakes in approaching the orchestration of the Tindersticks’ music because The Something Rain is really something: a well crafted and executed evocation of verdant indie pop that sticks with you long after it has sounded its final note.