By Nathan Pavolko
The soulful indie rock UK band Tindersticks have been making music since 1991 and are miraculously still going strong. With nine albums under their belt and a heavy interest in film, scoring multiple French films and appearing on many television soundtracks, the band embarks on their greatest feat yet: releasing their newest album The Waiting Room worldwide through City Slang, who recently celebrated their 25th anniversary and opening of a US office. The Waiting Room is not only a major achievement as the 10th album for the band, but also one of their most wildly creative and daring adventures in their musical soundscape. On top of that, the album is being paired with a collaborative film project with each track coexisting with a short film by its own respected director.
The combination has a profound sense of freedom compared to their previous works. Unlike previous efforts, band leader Stuart Staples takes a few steps back with his guitar subtly accenting the rest of the band as they take the forefront. With this slight change, the band has made a significant transition from poetic indie rock to a more jazz-focused freeform dance. This is especially prominent in the track “Second Chance Man” with a brass arrangement blasting in a strange time signature, adding that extra layer of soul to a woeful song. Staples' vocals croon like a 50s jazz singer in his deep baritone voice with a wavering vibrato, as the bass thumps a solid groove and a racing drum beat glues the song together.
The Waiting Room has such a unique style to it, opening with a gentle instrumental called “Follow Me” easing you into what’s to come, like the beginning of a play. This song in my imagination is the embodiment of an early morning wake up in a small town on the European country side. It’s beautiful and delicate with a gypsy-esque dance to the melody. The album has a very old sound to it, like it has some history musically as well as lyrically. The song “Hey Lucinda,” being an unreleased track from 2009, was also recorded with close friend Lhasa De Sela who sadly past away soon after the song was recorded. In it, Staples and Sela sing a duet about trying to reconnect with a lost love who has already moved on. Both vocal melodies have an avant-garde approach to the loose musical structure. Often times, the vocals wander off as the music dissipates, becoming almost too loose. It’s hard to hold a song like this together, but I also think it adds a sense of curiosity: never knowing what will happen next, like a free jazz song. However sad the lyrics may be, the song has a strange playfulness between the two singers and the music. In an interview, Staples had mentioned that the two of them had such a wonderful time recording the track that he felt responsible to finish it for the album. “I think at times in the song, you can hear her laughing. She was very special.” he tells NPR.
Tindersticks’ heavy film influence shows clear as day in their tenth album, each song sounding as though it belonged in a specific movie scene. Their music has a loud-quiet-loud climactic drama, making it all the more cinematic. Each director who helped create the film project truly captured the emotion or evoked a deeper meaning of the respected song. Some of the film scenes are reminiscent of French and Italian new wave with wonderfully shot cinematic poetry. In one of my favorite tracks of the album called “Help Yourself,” a deep cut groove is heard from the bass and drums, laying the foundation for some incredibly lively and complex brass to spice things up. This makes the song have a funky hustle and bustle to it, as if walking through the busy city streets or a crowded train station during mid-day; like in its short film.
Not all of The Waiting Room is so different from the band’s original sound. Scattered throughout the latter half, there are tracks with more grounded structures like their previous efforts, yet still retaining the tonality and movement of the album as a whole. In “How He Entered,” there is a piano playing a blissful melody looping back and forth as a bouncing bass and the drums slowly roll in. Staples calmly tells a beautiful story of life experiences through spoken word; the troublesome uncertainty of what’s to come but also the excitement that may unfold. The album also has a few noteworthy featured artists other than the late Lhasa De Sela: Johnny Beth from the band Savages was asked to add her vocals into the mix on the unsettling discordant track “We Are Dreamers!.” Another mentionable name is renowned jazz musician and close friend Julian Siegel, who did all the impressive brass arrangements on the album.
In all, The Waiting Room is a beautiful work of art that not many may understand or appreciate. However, it is well worth the time to invest in if you are looking for something more abstract and thought-provoking. It would also be a great album to introduce yourself to jazz or the idea of freeform music. If you are a fan of Tindersticks, then you may be in for a surprise but a much welcomed change.