Tindersticks, Waiting For The Moon, 2003

I’ve been angsting over this review for various reasons. It took me awhile to get into this album, but that’s par for the course with the Tindersticks. On Waiting For The Moon, at first the tunes seem barely there, and it was hard not to view the bulk of these songs as conforming to certain Tindersticks moulds. For example, we have the male/female duet, the male/male duet, the poetry recited over an increasing storm of jazzy noise, the quiet catchy pop song that builds and circles until it reaches a climax of soaring violins, the structureless number that drifts unmemorably along a bed of noise before fading out, the experimental tuneless tone poem, the quiet mumbled vocals, etcetera. The problem arises when you consider that this is a Tindersticks album and these are therefore shallow complaints. Tindersticks, even when they’re mining their own back catalogue for inspiration are still a great band. So yeah, this has turned into the old “they’re still better than 99% of the competition” argument. That’s part of it. The other part is that even though there’s a ‘heard it all before’ aspect to this album, for the most part these songs are still damn fine.

With this in mind, looking at various existing reviews we get phrases like “holding pattern” from All Music Guide, “string-drenched business as usual,” from Uncut “well-traveled” from A.V. Club, “familiarly bleak and gloomy,” from Dusted, and “a typically care-worn set,” from Mojo. Thus the feeling that they’ve stepped back into classic Tindersticks territory with this album after the slight detours on Simple Pleasure and Can Our Love… is hardly an original one, and given the nature of those adverbs and adjectives, reviewers are clearly despondent. Some reviewers see this as an obvious continuation of where they left off with Can Our Love… but I’m not convinced.

One other point I want to touch on before I start is that I don’t find it easy to pay attention to Tindersticks lyrics. The foremost reason for this is the way Stuart Staples sings—you don’t usually stand a chance of catching all the words. One cool thing though about Waiting For The Moon is that Dickon Hinchliffe takes lead on some tracks here. He’s a lot clearer than Staples, a nice honeyed voice, although still just as melancholy-laden as his co-singer. On the downside, his voice is not quite as distinctive or emotive as Staples’s. Stemming from the difficulty of discerning Staples’s enunciation is the fact that his lyrics aren’t terribly ‘concrete’ – they’re often emotive and abstract. Even where you can discern lyrics clearly, the picture unfolding is murky. As a result of all of this, it’s because the songs deliver such intense modes of feeling in the sound, melody and instrumentation that you get a strong sense of the emotional core without needing to hear every word. I guess what I’m trying to say is that (often) the voice is just another instrument in the Tindersticks oeuvre. That’s enough theory, Bumstead, needle on plastic already.

Until The Morning Comes…opens with the creepy line, “My hands round your throat / If I kill you now they will never know.” Hinchliffe seems to be dreaming about killing his girlfriend. Or he really is and is hoping it’s only a dream. Only a quietly strummed acoustic guitar until some backing singers singing a gorgeous “ooh” come on, the bass joins, and the strings support the building emotion. Hinchliffe sings this beautifully. The tune is exquisite and there’s an awesome little moment where he almost breaks into a falsetto. “Hush now darling I can hear you screaming.” A truly moving song to open with.

Say Goodbye To The City…is strange. Staple’s speaker is leaving and terrified of not being able to see ‘you’ anymore. There’s a driving, rhythmic bass line, until a viola joins with a light moaning and wailing. The lyrics seem to be about a man going blind. This scares him. He’s leaving the city, he can’t see her anymore and this is making him incredibly neurotic, as illustrated by the continuing build of instruments until we have saxophones, strings, violas, cellos all screaming and wailing to an intense climax. They fade, but that insistent rhythm keeps churning along. Odd little sax frills zip in and out along with that wailing viola, moaning trombone, screeching trumpet, and…and…well, how much does this sound like a review of anything off their first three albums? A lot. The whole thing builds back up again into a loud anarchic crescendo, this time trailing vapourous wisps of wailing violin. “I can’t see you any more,” sings Staples over and over. A little scary. Not a catchy singalong by any stretch. More of an arty number.

Sweet Memory…has Hinchcliffe on lead vocal again. This ‘sweet’ memory of her pervades all others, thus he is heartbroken. Just light instrumentation, slow drums, guitars, bass. I’ve really grown to love his voice. At first it seemed a little nondescript after Staples’s glum baritone, but there’s a real burnt honey flavour to it, and he’s into melody. Vocally though, and lyrically, he seems to have taken lessons from his co-writer because it’s far easier to draw parallels than dissimilarities. This song too builds once the strings start up. “And I never want to spend another day / Not another single moment from your side,” is the emotive chorus line. This is another song full of exquisitely pretty moments. Grand stuff.

4.48 Psychosis…a grim fragmented poetry taken from the play by suicide/playwright Sarah Kane around 2000. Begins with Staples asking, “What do you offer your friends to make them so supportive?” He then counts down from 100 to 1 attempting to do it in steps of seven, a psychiatrist’s technique to test for loss of concentration, apparently. The music is grungy and noisy, dark, complex. The lyrics are poetic glimpses of doom and gloom. This too sounds very much like Tindersticks I, and darker than ‘My Sister’ from Tindersticks II. I don’t really catch any black humour here, unless there’s a self-conscious Tinderstickian knowingness behind this track that I’m not picking up on. The only problem with this is that the bass just plays one note incessantly, the guitars grind, the occasional violin squeals, while other instruments play long pulsating rhythms sans any semblance of a tune. It fits in quite well after the last song but fails to leave much of an impression once it fades out. Radiohead at least manage to make psychosis sound melodic on ‘Climbing Up The Walls’ from Ok Computer.

Waiting For The Moon…utilizes bells, glock, staccato viola, organ—all in delicate juxtapositions, while Staples speak-sings words—something about the stars out waiting for the moon, waiting for us. “Sometimes it turns like a knife in my mind” –this is a bit of a clichéd line. Sounds like a Cure lyric. It’s pretty lonely and miserable. A lone viola plays loudly over the second half of the song. The song doesn’t really change chords, and again, there’s very little tune to speak of, but I quite like this. It’s a nice, melancholic sound.

Trying To Find A Home…the piano melody here sounds an awful lot like John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’. The lyrics are impressionistic, barely intelligible. The verses alternate between Staples and Hinchliffe which is a really nice touch. Then there’s a choir of backing singers doing a “doo-doo do doo-doo.” I can’t quite tell what this is specifically about. Hinchliffe’s near-falsetto is much more melodic and provides a great counterpoint to Staple’s crooning. The song is saturated with music, the choir, an ever-rising string section … until eventually the music outweighs the vocals and the singers stop altogether. The pace is slow, a feeling of warmth. A grinding cello comes in towards the end but ultimately, having heard this song a lot now, I’m still not hearing anything memorable. Though the instrumentation here is really rich and sumptuous it doesn’t quite complete the song, know what I’m saying? But wait, the song is called ‘Trying To Find A Home.’ Maybe the lack of completion, the irregularity, the feeling of failure, maybe these are the point. Maybe the theme is underlined by the very dissatisfaction I’m writing about. I’d like to think so.

Sometimes It Hurts…is another duet, this time with the American singer Lhasa de Sela. “You’re wasting your time / Coming round here,” Staples sings to her. The song has a beautiful melody. De Sela has a dry slightly husky voice which suits the lyric brilliantly. When the incredibly catchy chorus comes on, there’s a strange, warbly choir oohing and aahing in the background. Strings fill in the interlude before de Sela starts up again: “Been climbing these old walls screaming what a cheat you are.” She keeps coming round to see him, but he keeps telling her he’s only got this one song. I like that. It’s as though he’s talking about the Tindersticks—one song, several variations. “So play it for me” she says. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it don’t you know / Some days it hurts, some days it feels real good.” At the end, she finally realizes she is wasting her time coming round here. One of the best songs here. Rather tragic to learn that Lhasa de Sela passed away on the 1st of January, 2010 from breast cancer at only 37 years of age.

My Oblivion…opens with vibes and soaring strings before Staples starts up with one of those edge-of-the-world kind of lonesome vocals. “She’s my oblivion.” The guitar is strummed, the beat is very slow, and strings fill in the spaces between lyrics. It sounds a bit like a slow Pet Shop Boys number. “Which way to turn…the edges of our lives.” A song about…love, tortured love. I’m not too fussed on this. The strings build, louder, the vocal gets more pleading and desperate. He can’t…you know…he just can’t alright? Whatever it is, it’s too difficult for him. I don’t know about this track. It sounds important, but again, it seems to be trading in melody for pomp and circumstance. There’s only so much of that you can take. Not a particularly memorable song unless you’re willing to figure the lyrics out, which in the context of the Tindersticks catalogue seems a bit passé to me.

Just A Dog…is a funny one, mandolin, bouncy piano line, more upbeat, almost a country number. Lyrically it seems to follow on from the previous song. There he was standing on the balcony looking down at the street, now he’s in the street trotting around her heels like a yapping dog. “Here in the street / Nothing grows / There’s nothing I don’t already know…. /…I’m just a dog / Training to be a man / I’m just a dog / But at night I howl.” The instrumentation is slightly country, but again, the tune is weak. The vocal performance doesn’t fit in well with the music. They sound like they wanted to play a pop song but Staples refused to sing anything with a melody. The song seems to peter out or break down at the end, unsure of itself. Anyway, he feels like a dog around this woman.

Running Wild…at least they finish on a decent note. It’s sparse, only a few twinkly piano notes in the upper registers. Staples again, “running wild” this time, as if the lyrics from the previous song have merged into this one. He can’t sleep tonight. It’s really slow, a strummed guitar, delicate piercing strings, and that pretty plaintive piano melody. The tune isn’t strong. This is one of those numbers, a little like ‘Tricklin’’ from Can Our Love…, ‘Bearsuit’ from Curtains, or ‘Tyed’ from Tindersticks I although it’s a bit longer—one of those songs where there’s only a few lyrics sort of sung round and round as the song drifts on and eventually fades out.

Click once to expand, again to magnify

Okay, I have to be honest here. Side Two lets the album down a little. Few of these second five songs are particularly memorable and I’ve played this a lot over the past few months. Atmosphere-wise, it’s classic Tindersticks, but at the end of the day, I like Tindersticks best when there’s a higher ratio of memorable songs to mood music.

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About Alan Bumstead Vinyl Reviews

Alan Bumstead is a music fanatic who humbly adds confusion to the world with a string of album reviews written during real-time-listening in a stream-of-consciousness style, then edited for spelling, punctuation, flow and grammar. Apart from an additional introductory paragraph, the writing is improvised in time with the music. There is no re-writing. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- In his book Moving To Higher Ground Wynton Marsalis says, "Because jazz musicians improvise under the pressure of time, what's inside comes out pure. It's like being pressed to answer a question before you have a chance to get your lie straight. The first thought is usually the truth." I like to think that's what Alan Bumstead's all about.
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