Tindersticks are an odd case. The smoky UK chamber combo emerged so fully formed in 1993 with their mesmerizing self-titled debut double-LP that there seemed little room for evolution. Yet evolve they have, albeit mostly in subtle increments – immersing themselves in film scores (most notably with French director Claire Denis) and swapping out half of their sextet in the mid 2000s.
The Waiting Room inverts the process. Tindersticks commissioned a short film to accompany each of its eleven tracks. This is first and foremost a musical album, however – and it shows. The songs have more verve and several – like “Second Chance Man” – are more memorable than usual as standalones, rather than succeeding as mood pieces in aggregate.
Tindersticks’ centerpiece remains Stuart Staples’ voice, a deep off-kilter baritone somewhere between Leonard Cohen and Bryan Ferry that simultaneously conveys suave and fragility. Yet the band has spread its wings – “Fear of Emptiness” is among their most beguiling instrumentals, reflecting Tindersticks’ take on dub reggae, complete with melodica. And check how the horns on “Help Yourself,” bridge the gap between Ethiopian jazz and 1970s US funk. Meanwhile, “Were We Once Lovers?” reflects the band’s nearest encroachment on latter-day Roxy Music turf.
“Hey Lucinda” extends Staples’ impressive run of duets with female counterparts, one of which graces most albums. This is Tindersticks’ second go-around with Canadian Lhasa de Sela, who trades verses with Staples trying to coax her out for an evening of drinking. He warns of the college boys who will soon “be changing all the records and taking our favorite spot,” to which she retorts “But they drink to the future, not to forget the past.” His “time is running out” refrain is even more poignant for those familiar with the backstory – de Sela died of breast cancer in 2010, and Staples was only recently able to bring himself to revisit the remaining session tapes with his departed friend.
Most Tindersticks albums sound good out of the gate before gradually receding into an interchangeable position among a solid catalog with a few standouts – like their debut, which featured prominently in last year’s David Foster Wallace biopic The End of the Tour. The Waiting Room stands a good chance to be the next spike in that listing, but I’ve said that about past releases as well. I was hit with an eerie wave of déjà vu thinking I had written a very similar review of 2010’s Falling Down a Mountain. I can find no sign of it on the Stomp and Stammer website, though, so let’s pretend it never happened.
The Waiting Room