Tindersticks really are a creature of wonderful contradictions. Epic and intimate, uplifting and bleak, gentle and ballsy, experimental and traditional. Good and bad? No, no, no . . . always very good indeed. With reassuring predictability, Waiting for the Moon adds impressively to their canon. This, their sixth studio LP, is an album of assured breadth, filled with a renewed self-confidence. After the more pared-down, soulful sound of their past two releases, Tindersticks have reinvigorated their songwriting with some of their "old" sound, and the result straddles all that they have recorded in impressive fashion.
While a devoted (bordering on fanatical) fan-base follow the band in the UK and on the continent, American recognition is still not forthcoming. For the uninitiated, you're in for a wonderful revelation. Defining their music is not easy, however. It is lush, awash with strings and noir-ish overtones; less punk than Nick Cave, more dramatic than Lambchop. If you like Tom Waits's ballads then you're in safe territory. Like Waits, the thing you first notice is the voice. Stuart Staples has a deep baritone that plummets as the strings soar, a unique voice that can be indecipherable at times, but heart wrenching at others. You always get people blabbing on in tiring fashion about things that you will either love or hate, so apologies for the cliché, but Stuart Staples's voice is one of those things. You're either with us or against us.
So, to the album. It's not a complete departure from the soulfulness of the past couple of releases -- the female backing singers are still there -- but it does re-mesh it with a more 'traditional' Tindersticks sound. The result is a sassy, progressive blend -- Waiting for the Moon sounds like a band in control.
Perhaps the chief pleasure is the continued emergence of Dickon Hinchcliffe as a vocalist. As on recent albums, he again duets movingly with Staples, this time on "Trying to Find a Home". But, significantly, he also goes it alone. The album opens with Hinchcliffe's "Until the Morning Comes", a sumptuous lullaby. Typical that a song most bands would kill to conclude their album with is provocatively posited at the beginning. Delicate acoustic guitar and lush strings frame Hinchcliffe's voice, before muted piano and backing vocals make their mellow entrance. The nocturnal feel of the album is indelibly imprinted by this most beguiling of introductions. But Dickon's not done. Not content with delivering just one outstanding track, he springs "Sweet Memory", the beneficiary of his lush orchestration skills and a confessional delivery.
There is no slacking from the rest of the group though. "Say Goodbye to the City" is vintage Tindersticks -- it seems a while since they were making songs like this. Al Macauley's syncopated drumming and the insistency of the organ reinforce a sense of urgent desperation, backed by chaotic strings and brass stabs. Staples croons inimitably throughout.
Indeed, aside from Hinchcliffe's ascendancy, there is conscious retrospective feel throughout the album. Motifs from previous tracks are alluded to in new ones -- with "Trying to Find a Home" repeatedly referencing "I Know That Loving" from Simple Pleasure as the most obvious example. There is also a duet with Mexican/American jazz singer Lhasa de Sela, reminiscent of previous collaborations with female vocalists like Carla Torgerson (of Seattle's Walkabouts), Isabella Rossellini (the actress), and Ann Magnuson (Bongwater). The Torgerson duet -- "Travelling Light" -- is a close cousin of the latest offering, "Sometimes It Hurts". On this track, De Sela's charismatic voice intertwines and complements Staples's baritone to enchanting effect, and, like its predecessor, it should be a single.
The nature of the band offers the reviewer a specific conundrum. If you're a Tindersticks fan, you own this already; you're just checking up on me, making sure I'm in line. If you're not, then all I can do is urge you to indulge. If you don't own anything by the Tindersticks, don't buy this first. It is a work of maturity, and perhaps not the most accessible. Tindersticks have been making ever more concise records; their early albums were something of a sprawl and would feature up to 20 songs. Waiting for the Moon is more structured and sticks to a restrained 10. These kinds of albums are best served when working up to them. It would be a bit like diving straight into scotch without first enjoying beer and red wine. No, a first-time buyer would be better off starting with one of the first two albums, or the exquisite Curtains. Whichever way you do it, do it fast.