'Sticks and Stones

Tindersticks, Elliott Smith
Monday, Nov. 3

The English group that calls itself Tindersticks plays serious, personal, and dour music; on the flurry of records and singles the group has released over the past four or five years, the six members create a lush, mostly acoustic backdrop of strings, horns, and organs for lead singer Stuart Staples' lugubrious, overemoting vocals. On the surface, the band sounds like some other artists: Nick Cave's dark cartoons, or Leonard Cohen's beat atmosphere-conjuring. But Staples is different: He's not a cartoon, and lacks Cohen's seen-it-all weariness. Beyond that, the band seems to have a different mission: They began (and ended) the Fillmore show with unknown songs; Staples announced that the first one was new and told the audience that they wouldn't know the last one. There are two ways of looking at the nameless bookends. Could be Tindersticks wanted to treat fans -- rather rabid sorts who foam over the alluringly packaged singles and live albums -- to something new. But it also served as evidence of a desire for anonymity, and a mood-setting device to establish an artifice of seamy cabaret.

Tindersticks make lonesome, late-late-night kind of records. Staples sings some wonderful lyrics with his affected, smoked-molasses baritone; psychosexual outings like "Blood" and "Jism" are both inspired fiction of burly seediness. (And on ballads like "Marbles" or works like "City Sickness" and "Ballad of Tindersticks" he's capable of creating dramatic settings for songs about lost love and death, lost love and isolation, and lost love and artistic integrity.) On their first two albums, Tindersticks and (yes) Tindersticks, a couple of live releases, and two albums this year, Curtains and also the soundtrack to the film Nenette et Boni, the band has investigated extremely unhip easy-listening arrangements, played around with dynamic worldly instrumentation -- a flamenco guitar here, a sweeping Indian-sounding violin there -- and ably manipulated influences from artists like the Velvets and Cohen.

But no matter how broad the musical influences, lyrically Staples rarely ventures out of his own tiny, insular world. It's a place where the same event recurs into perpetuity: Staples loses a lover and only the guilt ("inconsideration," "this last affair") and artifacts (yellowed letters, pages open in a book) remain. This insularity is a powerful, sometimes devastating device, but where it once allowed him to reveal strangely alluring crimson sores, over time this unrelenting examination has seemed more like he's peddling a handful of bloody guts tumbling out of his stomach.

At the Fillmore, the first, nameless, song was based around crisp, musical drumming and a smooth bass line. On top of the rhythm section, low-end piano chords and tight midrange notes provided the melody. Grand electric violin came in on the chorus, and Staples -- a tall, somewhat stocky man wrapped in a nice suit rumpled from a few days' wear -- began to emote like a full-size floppy doll with a bad haircut, holding onto the mike stand with one hand and simultaneously bending his right leg awkwardly off-time.

That song flushed into a number Staples ID'd as "Doubling Down" and then a set list that included a collage of material drawn evenly from across the band's prodigious catalog. "Her," a fast-paced spaghetti western a la Ennio Morricone, broke the rather monotonous pace of midtempo and slow ballads. On "My Sister," a consuming spoken-word story about a young girl whose blindness at age 5 sets off a series of tragedies ending in an early death, Staples' morose tone complemented the grim finale. "I Was Your Man," a torch song from Curtains, matched vibes with a two- and three-note bass line, and two organs from either side of the stage. That song epitomized what Tindersticks do live: bounce two instruments -- one for harmony, the other for melody -- off one another to fill in the thicker production from their records.

As the show wore on, I savored the moments when Tindersticks fell apart, and Staples lost composure. The vocals went out at the beginning of one song and Staples blustered: "Someone talk to me, tell me what's happening." He mopped himself with a towel, tossed it on top of an amp, and said the band would come back to it. "Aww," shouted the audience, asking for a retry. "No," he said, "you've spoiled the mood."

Let's just say Tindersticks wanted to create the illusion that the audience was witnessing a theatrical cabaret act (which they did on the song following the flub, Townes Van Zandt's "Kathleen"). The goal of most cabaret is somewhat similar to theater: Create characters and an environment of intense emotional events onstage and demand the audience be transfixed by the actions. Tindersticks are rock enough to have a frontman -- however pretentious and fey -- for the spotlight, but both Staples and the rest of the band behaved as if the audience didn't exist.

The Fillmore audience couldn't play the part of consumed spectator: This was a rock show and a rock audience (admittedly a well-behaved one); the crowd -- all sideburns, blazers, and foreign accents -- tried to nod along with the music, even dance. When you really think about it, for the show to have worked as it was supposed to, we in the audience should have just conversed and entertained ourselves, while keeping one eye on the stage to capture the atmosphere radiating out from Staples and company. I'm as open as the next guy to artistic integrity, but it seemed a bit much. Particularly since one of the problems with the band is that its audience -- both fans and its critical amen corner -- is far too tolerant of its work.

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