Tindersticks - The Waiting Room
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The grandiosity remains, with a sharper focus applied to this more forthcoming version of the familiar Tindersticks template.
Their first studio album since 2012's The Something Rain comes with many recognisable trappings. Always unabashed Francophiles, Tindersticks continue to make the kind of music that feels knowingly geared towards the French milieu. Through the years Staples has clung to a few warming lighthouses of recognition - his one, unchanging guitar (a 1966 Guild Starfire), a spiny baritone, clearer here in its delivery than on previous records, and frequent dabbling in the spoken word.
For their latest effort, the band have tasked talented filmmakers with creating their own visual meditation on each of the 11 tracks. Stuart Staples is no stranger to movie work - amongst other projects, he has been a regular collaborator with the director Claire Denis - and Tindersticks have always exuded a kind of performative romance bound by self-restraint and guilt. Unfortunately, the films were not available for viewing at the time of writing.
Aurally at least, there's much to like. Their production on The Waiting Room is as clear of sonic cloudiness as it's been for a while. While not quite on a par with Tom Waits' jump from The Black Rider to Mule Variations, you get the feeling that everything has been dragged forward out of the gloom. Strings are less overwhelming. The guitars don't need to reach through a fog of reverb; they're already right there from the outset, tensing under your chin.
The resulting album is immaculately turned out. Almost everything carries muscle; 'Follow Me' is a tender instrumental, and could very nicely open one of Sylvain Chomet's melancholic animations. 'Were We Once Lovers?' continues the disco-inflection that hasn't proven to be universally welcomed by Tindersticks purists, but brings much-needed verve. 'Help Yourself' goes even further, hinting at the Godfather of Soul, of all people.
The short vignettes, like 'Planting Holes' are often the most affecting pieces. Soundtrack work has been good for Tindersticks; there's less going-on-for-going-on's sake. On the flip side, lead single 'Lucinda' and 'We Are Dreamers' are the least interesting tracks, mostly because Staples is most arresting when he's a lone voice.
Quite a few fans have found the apparent transformation of Staples into a louche dancefloor commandant too much. Tindersticks aren't likely to soundtrack too many wedding parties just yet (other than for first dances). You have to put the idea of a Staples 'party track' into context. The worldview is still archer than arch, albeit with a new, faint vein of funk.
Fortunately, there's always been an undoubtable hard core of substance at the heart of Tindersticks. For all their allusions to gauche Paris, or to the miserabilist epics of Arab Strap, something about their sparse arrangements and simplicity of purpose wins you over. The spoken word 'How He Entered' has a bundle of great lines; "With his hair combed he stood in the doorway / like a lost dog holding his missing poster / with chips in his pocket / just waiting for his chance to get into the game." Staples is a wonderfully generous lyricist, neither overplaying his hand nor worrying about employing the odd half-ripe metaphor. Like so many of the melodies, he favours couplets that move from one place to another and back again, rarely reaching for a salutary conclusion. Tindersticks tracks invariably end up exactly where they began, not much wiser for the experience.
The Waiting Room is Tindersticks on ravishing form. For die-hards and newcomers alike, it's hard not to be drawn in by the lush facade it creates.
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