I remember the Tindersticks’ debut album was Melody Maker’s album of the year in 1993. I found a way to hear it, but after a cursory once-over, thought it seemed boring and paid no more attention. My first Tindersticks purchase came in 1995 with their second album, (also eponymously titled Tindersticks). Again, I didn’t find it an easy album to get into but I persisted this time. Both albums are long – you become familiar with the first half easily enough, but on CD, after 40 minutes or so, it all begins to wash together and get a bit samey. That’s the curse of CD. If the songs are not radically distinguishable from one another, then 70+ minutes of music at one sitting is really boring, even if the band are great. I’ve always thought 45 minutes makes the perfect album length.
So, after enjoying (what is now known as) Tindersticks II, I bought the debut and continued buying their albums up until 2001’s “Can Our Love?” Tindersticks are sometimes mentioned in the same breath as Nick Cave for the only reason that Stuart Staples’ voice croons in the low registers. The Tindersticks are a pop band who use strings in beautiful and inventive ways. I don’t see them as ‘acting’ the part in the way that I perceive Nick Cave does, even though both their music and Staples’ voice are equally dramatic.
Tindersticks comes so perfectly formed as a debut album you might get suspicious. The cool thing is that it has this lush mature sound but it’s still quite alternative. They use weird vibes, distorted bells, organs, grinding brass and atmospheric strings in weird caustic ways to create moody atmospheres. There’s interesting sounds stuffed into every nook and cranny coating the music with a textural surface, which gives it a slightly acquired taste, but hey, I did all the groundwork many years ago, and I’m still reaping the rewards. You don’t ever get sick of this album.
Nectar… so what did the world hear when it first laid down a needle on a Tindersticks LP in 1993? They heard a soft song with an insistent rhythm, chugged along by a strummed acoustic guitar and brief string punctuations where the chorus should be. A song that is pleasant in all the right places, but never builds to a chorus or a moment. So yeah, it just chugs along and the lyrics are mumbly, nearly inaudible. But it’s a nice sound and it’s hummable.
Fruitless… a slow minute-long instrumental interlude with piano, strings, bits of electric guitar, high twinkly notes on the piano and organ. (This only appears on the vinyl version).
Tyed… this is where you first notice something very different is happening. Blasts of disharmonic sax, some kind of warbly violin, tinpan percussion, toots and uneven dissonance create a disoriented feel. Staples intones in the gaps something like, “Sheet that was cut and cut for blood / Was opened and dried and stretched out / Hung on the wall” over and over in the gaps between the rising tension. There is a kind of avante jazzy mood here. Very intense. Great ambience, brilliantly twisted stuff. Right here is where your jaw drops. The bass and drums create a fairly normal background rhythm for all this strange jazzy stuff to float over. It’s a bit like what Radiohead did with “The National Anthem” seven years later, except I think this is way better.
Sweet Sweet Man Pt I… “She said, ‘Oh, a sweet sweet man like you / What can I do for you?’” and he tells her that he can only bring her misery. Less than a minute long. Quiet instrumentation. Just guitar, bass and then fade.
Whiskey & Water… is sort of spoken/sung. The chorus comes on, the strings play along in the background. The violins wail in the distance like cats. The bassline really propels this song along brilliantly. It would make a good driving song; there’s a good tune here that builds in intensity with the strangest ulterior sounds in support of the mood. Those soon peel off, and then, when it’s down to just drums, bass, strings and Staples voice, “Whiskey & Water” turns into a really nice pop song … which lasts for all of 20 seconds before the weird vibes build back into the mix again. This is really hard music to write about. I can’t come up with the right words in real time. Great song though. I am only realising now, listening to it closely, how amazing this is; how vastly superior this was to so much other 90s Britpop.
Blood… a quieter number; consistent vocal with a neat chorus hook. Low-key in terms of instrumentation, but still, not your average indie fare by any stretch. Some kind of oboe thing plays along with the guitar. Great tune again. This is really pretty, a sort of bittersweet downer music. Quiet organ fills chime in near song’s end. “Where does the blood go / As it runs away / From broken lives?” I admit I’m finding it really difficult to capture any of this in words. Think apologetic. Think film noir. Think a rainy day outside your ugly brick suburban apartment. Think broken, beautiful, downer music. If you listened to this with a terrible hangover it might just about have you in tears.
City Sickness… easily my favourite song on the album. Just brilliant. Great pop hooks. Awesome but subtle build into the chorus and then these beautiful strings which lift right up into that high place. Cowbell. Good lyrics too. “I’m crawling / I don’t know where to or from / The center of things from which everything stems is not where I belong.” And later, “I’m hurtin’ babe / In the city there’s no place for love / It’s just used to make people feel better / That’s not like us / I got this sickness / As I got off the train / Now it chafes away at my heart / Until nothing remains.” I would actually go further and say this is right up there as one of my all time favourite songs. Once it gets in your head you can’t get it out. “I have these hands beating with love for you / And you’re not here to touch / Sent you away / What else can I do / When I need something that much.” Awesome ending. Best ending of any song that ended with strings ever.
Patchwork… and if “City Sickness” wasn’t enough, they throw the next best or at least next catchiest song straight after it. And when I say ‘catchiest’ I don’t mean in the throwaway pop sense, I mean great song. This starts kind of subdued but with a menace that hints that something’s afoot. Really cool violin…or maybe it’s an electric guitar (electric violin?) playing a warping bent note that sort of floats away. The song meanders with some brass tooting quietly away and never quite builds to the heights it promises, but that’s its charm. It maintains a steady pulse with the tune carried in the guitar line. Then a chorus comes on and it’s somehow subdued and really catchy at the same time. I’m not quite sure what he’s singing about. But you can guess. They’re all about miserable relationships. Geez, if I ever mined my past relationships, all the crappy parts, I’d probably write lyrics like these. They’re things any man can relate to—arguments that don’t get resolved and the misery that results from that.
Marbles… here’s another goodie, but more of a mood piece; dense instrumentation and doomy atmosphere; spoken lyrics amidst a sort of swamp vibe; a thick morass of sound with interesting tweaks. Staples intones these lyrics about some woman; “It was saddening the lengths she had gone to / To appear more attractive / In the process losing something / We never knew but still missed.” They’re always about women and often quite cruel sounding. Like someone’s been beaten up. Someone’s being stolen from someone else. Good old grim realism. It’s like your typical miserable British drama I suppose but done as music. Punishing in a soft way. Poetic stuff. This one gets really weird as the song progresses. The music gets even more dense. Weird static noises scratch over the groove. And then two voices intoning different words over top of one another, and I can only throw my typing-hands up in the air.
The Walt Blues… a short carnivalesque instrumental piece. Slightly creepy. You can picture a demented circus clown hiding somewhere in the shadows.
Milky Teeth… guitars far off screech; a bruising bassline stamps in. The screeching gives way to a smooth baritone vocal. Back to the ‘pop’ sound of the opening track with that insistent groove of bass and drums, while violins play counterpoint to the vocal and the guitar fuzz comes back, intense. This is what makes them so good—they’re constantly changing the texture of their songs. The song itself doesn’t go through too many structural changes but what you hear consistently gets altered; sounds removed, new weird sounds added over the groove, but always, a groove catchy enough to reel you in. I keep forgetting—I’ve been playing this for years. Years I say.
Sweet Sweet Man Pt II… a quiet, subdued number with faint scratchy violins far off in the background. Just a coda to the end of Side Two. Only a minute long.
Jism… there’s a theme on this album relating to fluids, bodily and otherwise. Staples sings in a really nasal, whiny way here so it’s a bit difficult to catch the words. Again, a doomy vibe on bass while strings play this bizarre, warbling line when the vocal takes a break. It’s not terribly tuneful; just a groove and those strange sounds. I suppose if you were going to be critical, you might say you can hear them sort of repeating themselves by this stage—there’s a certain kind of formula or stylizing going on here. Actually this builds and gets better. “If she’d have known / She’d have shown me / I need to taste your pain / For accomplishment / See, I can only take it out on you / There’s no one else I can trust.” This is one of the longest songs here at over six minutes. Those songs already reviewed on Sides One and Two would have already made a great album’s worth for a lesser band, but with the Tindersticks you get value for money—the first three Tindersticks albums are all double albums of quality material. Amazing.
Piano Song… a cruel song about a couple in bed. The wife won’t shut up. The guy is getting mad. She’s still going on and he’s lying there, and the lyrics hint at some pretty nasty domestic violence. He’s going to have to lash out to get her to shut up. “I know this touch can leave you hurting / When my words clatter about your head /…/ I’m at my strongest only when I’m weak / And give you those bruises just by talking to you.” Brutal lyrics over a sweet acoustic number.
Tie-Dye… this harks back to the song “Tied” on Side One. In fact it’s the same song but with different instrumentation. Same length even—both four minutes. I can’t say I ever realized this before now. I did know there were two songs on here called “Tied” and “Tie-Dyed” but I never realised it was the same song. This one, when the repeated lyric, “sheep that was cut and cut for blood / was opened, dried and stretched out / hung on the wall” dies away, has a bizarre kind of wind tunnel sound playing the warped theme with added noises.
Raindrops… slow song. Hm. I’ve never really noticed this song before. It’s very low-key; just a vocal, a piano, bass, drum, and someone stringing their bow back and forth over a violin in the background. Sound familiar? I read a Tindersticks blog where the blogger raved about this song, says it’s his favourite, calls it, “The sound of Tindersticks becoming themselves.” Fair enough. Not a standout for me though. “Silence is here again… tonight.”
Sweet Sweet Man Pt III… okay so blogger guy also asks, “Why split this song into three sections? Why not just make it one great song?” I think this is a good call. What would be lost though? I think it might ruin the thematic approach that they give the album with all the short instrumental interludes. Why? I don’t know. Doesn’t bother me. It helps to make the album cohere if you ask me. Some have said this album is patchy, or changes too much, a collection of demos, a first album in other words. But no, I don’t get that at all. I’m hearing something that’s been meticulously planned out to the very last wretched whine of violin distortion. This track is light, a soft organ, then louder strings. It does seem however, that they’ve literally recorded the song as one piece and then deliberately cut it up into three sections. This is the longest of the three at 1m 45s.
Her… sounds Spanish. Spanish guitar opens with some strumming and arpeggios. I’m pretty sure this is one of my faves. I never paid attention to the opening before. It then kicks in with a fast flamenco style which links to the picture on the album cover. This is a goodie. It’s intense, faster, the singer sounds desperate. “Oh her her her her.” I suppose it doesn’t really go anywhere once the strumming starts. Plays it straight, keeps it simple.
Tea Stain… interesting opening with stabbed organ chords playing the theme in staccato over a few times before the song starts. Really raw. Well…so that’s all the song is—staccato notes playing a creepy melody. Ha, my wife just complained “this is too weird.” Yes, not really a song. Just two minutes of that same noise.
Drunk Tank… here we have a warm sounding song with another raw acoustic guitar. Vocal is louder. Piano plonks some high notes. Strong groove. You can hear the song building. Strings enter. Guitar gets louder and more intense. Vocal comes back. “How you doing tonight / I don’t wanna fight.” Nice little piano flourishes really add a lot to the song. “I know I said / We better get home to bed / And I was the one who always stayed up so late / Always forgetting my inconsideration / It’s a different story when you can never go home again,” and just when you the think the tune is going to resolve itself, it doesn’t. It goes totally alien on you, in a really haunted way, like totally creepy. The chord change is just bizarre there. This is haunted stuff. “I know the fist on the end of my arms / Just these hands trembling / Think of me / It never goes away / Think of me the way I used to be / I know I said we better get home to bed…” etc. And then the weird warble chord thing. This is exciting stuff. Really nervous and tense. Love it. Thrilling and menacing.
Paco De Renaldo’s Dream… this song is a spoken word poem set to really fitful atmospherics. A cornet. A repeated piano line. Unfortunately the music gets in the way of the mumbly words. More of the old different voices saying different lines at the same time, an effect I quite like.
The Not Knowing… and now the last track on Side Four. What a tour de force. What a journey. This was quite a huge undertaking to review. It’s a long album, but I never find it boring – not when I’m listening to it closely and paying attention. It’s fascinating and demands close listening. So here we have a cute sounding number with a strange little opening that sounds like a kazoo. Another low-key piece; just that kazoo thing playing counterpoint to the vocal. Some strings creep in. This is nice way to end. It’s plaintive, sounds simple, quiet, and sort of trickles the album out the back door beautifully. “And the not knowing is easy / And the suspecting / That’s okay / Just don’t tell me for certain / That our love’s gone away.” What a line.
What an album. Amazingly, they would surpass it with the brilliant follow-up, Tindersticks II.