This is the history of a band losing its way. At their melancholic, melodious best the Tindersticks sound gorgeous. Lead singer Stuart Staples mumbles about romantic betrayal, bedroom angst and the inevitability of separation to an accompaniment of ever-descending piano and stirring cellos. Sadly this retrospective double album also includes many clamorous and forgettable songs.
Between 1993 and 1995 Ry Cooder singalike Staples and his Notts-based quintet furrowed a dark groove of intimate, inspired pop. The gift for sweet tunes evident in their brilliant '92 debut, Patchwork, was honed to produce polished pop poems like "Marbles", "Tiny Tears" and "Travelling Light", the latter a lush duet with the Walkabouts' Carla Torgeson. Happily, all these get onto Disk 1 of this release.
They won acclaim for their collaborations with orchestras big and small. They realised the plangent potential of lilting string arrangements and the melodramatic force of isolating Staples' lonely voice against a massive symphonic background.
Critics often reduce the Tindersticks to their influences. As well as Cooder there are traces of Nick Cave, Scott Walker, Leonard Cohen, The Jesus and Mary Chain's glam fuzz and the Joy Division of Unknown Pleasures. This sort of comparison points out two things: one, the Tinders are a rich mix of rock and pop echoes (you'll hear whoever you like best) and secondly the band always had a foot in the Goth grave of the 80s.
Disk 2 is unfortunately a drawn-out collection of earnest, soul-searching songs. With the exception of "For Those" and "Here" the band's cabaret fetishism gets the better of its natural talents, and here the Tindersticks fall apart. The four fairly tiresome tracks on the Kurt Weill inspired 'Kathleen EP' are included on the second disc as 'rarities'; they should have been left where they were. Trying too hard to be deep, the result is merely grim and humourless.
Patchy as the pretentiously sad stuff makes the back catalogue seem, it's sadder still that the alt-country aspirations of the band seem unconcluded, its ambitions unfulfilled. But it comes with the territory - a band that declares its ethos in "Let's Pretend" was doomed to be profoundly imperfect and prone to faking it. On the upside, when the Tindersticks get it right they are as underrated for the 90s as the headlining bands were overrated.
So if you missed the Tindersticks first time round, ignore the experimental stuff, dim the lights and luxuriate in a half dozen minor masterpieces from the dark woods of provincial Britpop. --Chris Moss
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