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.
Tindersticks' career began heatedly in 1993 after Melody Maker, in a suitably melodramatic move (and one typical of the British music press), pronounced their debut album the best record of the year. Four years on, the sound-alike Curtains is getting the same critical astonishment as previous albums earned. (In the alternative press, at least; Tindersticks haven't yet penetrated the mainstream press.) It's hardly worth it. There are fine moments, like the screeching violin and defeated voice on "Fast One" and the doomed waltz of "Another Night In," but as a whole, the record is flawed in a few specific ways. For the most part the music is there, but Staples' vocals bore and the songwriting is wrecked with cliches.
The dumber moments of Curtains, like the childish rhymes on "Rented Rooms," were painfully obvious live. Staples' serious (so serious) voice and a shocking (shocking!) bit about screwing in a bathroom couldn't erase the corny couplet that pairs "We had no time to cry" with "I sit and wonder why." What is that? Oasis?
The tune also provided my favorite moment of Tindersticks' set. Midsong, a yuk in an orange blazer jumped up onstage and danced an uncomfortable jig. Minutes later, another guy -- this one in a gray suit and an open collar right out of Details -- repeated the stage crash and a similar dance. The most compelling thing about both crashers was how they each wanted to be the center of attention: Neither seemed interested in being close to the performers; neither jumped Staples the way mad Morrissey fans go for him. What they did was crash the proscenium that Tindersticks had been creating the entire set. That made their ridiculous dances seem more like acts of frustration; a desire to break the cabaret artifice. This desire was annoying in actuality but interesting philosophically. In that way, the act was a message calling for Tindersticks to fulfill the promise of mostly entrancing records: The band needs to find some way to create a live performance where the deliberate artiness accentuates a show instead of spotlighting a shady idea.
Opening the show, Portland folkie Elliott Smith lived up to the expectation created for him by reams of fawning press, both mainstream and tiny. For far too long with his now-defunct band Heatmiser, Smith attempted -- sometimes successfully -- to rock out, but his solo project, three albums since 1994, is more about folk than big chord progressions. Smith wants to connect with his audience: The other night he talked to them; wore clothes like them (minus the blazer); sung about familiar events in their own lives (breakups, alienation, and knowing drug abusers); and took the mystery out of his own songs. (One monologue explained that he uses a capo on tunes of a particular vintage because he wrote them all on an ex-girlfriend's out-of-tune guitar.)
For unspecified reasons, a few months ago Smith passed at the chance to open for Beck's endless U.S. tour. Smith's obviously a bright guy. Concertgoers drop exorbitant amounts of money and walk through a half-dozen irritating rituals -- long lines, expensive drink, filthy BASS surcharges -- because they want a very particular experience. With Beck, Smith's guitar finger-picking and sad songs would have seemed boring at best, irrelevant at worst. Seen in the light of the Tindersticks show, however, Smith seemed outright playful. He created an experience for his audience to carry home in mental doggie bags, but something else happened, too: Smith -- however inadvertently -- set up a dichotomy between the folk tradition and Tindersticks' theatrical cabaret, two forms at odds with one another.
The singer came onstage, sat on a chair, dropped his cigarette, and began the gorgeous "Division Day," a recent single. His wispy, high voice seemed like it was filling out on the lower end. He thanked the audience, sang "Angles" from his current CD, Either/Or, along with its fancy guitar work, and then talked about feeling better after a bout of pneumonia.
Smith chatted about one of his tattoos, performed old songs ("Coming Up Roses," "Clementine," "Southern Belle") and new songs ("Rose Parade," and the wonderfully positive in-love-with-love tune "Say Yes"), and took requests from the audience ("Old song or new song?"; "Fast song or slow song?"). For the most part Smith honored the requests, but at least one got shot down. "I'm 28. I wrote that song when I was 17," Smith said in answer to one appeal. "I'm not Mick Jagger; I don't dress up in a costume and pretend that I'm 20 years old.