Love me tinder
Mooning over Tindersticks.

By Kimberly Chun

IT SEEMED LIKE a match made in art-house hell. What do blood-sucking cannibal lovers have in common with stammering, soft-spoken, and well-mannered Stuart Staples, the smooth, sepulchral voice of Tindersticks?

Seemingly nothing. The former popped up in the flash-in-the-pan 2001 cinematic ode to fearful, fearsome vampire lovers, Trouble Every Day, by French director Claire Denis. The latter have been the much loved, culty pets of the Brit music press and U.S. indie critics for the past decade or so, ever since the Nottingham, England, six-piece were mere kindling.

Waiting for the Moon (Beggars Banquet), Tindersticks' sixth studio album, not counting their soundtracks for Trouble Every Day and Denis's Nenette et Boni, finds the group reconciling the early wild-card experimentation of Tindersticks (This Way Up/London/Polygram, 1995) with the tremulous, warped weave of R&B and soul of their last two full-lengths, Simple Pleasure (Quicksilver/Island, 1999) and Can Our Love ... (Beggars Banquet, 2001).

Of course, anyone who thought the Brit mood swingers were going pop can sit back down at the bar and get another shot of reality. R&B is only a remotely accurate term for the rum-and-coke, smoky ambience tendered by the 'Sticks. Can Our Love ...'s funereal "Chilitetime," spiked with John Cale-like, dissonant strings, is about as far from Beyoncé's recent Chi-Lites resurrection, "Crazy in Love," as Panty Raid's music is from "Thong Song" – they're in the same ballpark, but their games are still somewhat alien to each other. In any case, to consolidate their newfound sense of balance and stability, the band (now dispersed between London, Prague, and Bristol) will embark on their first U.S. tour in six years.

Far from a mic, on the phone from London, the 37-year-old vocalist is absent any sarcasm, bad temper, and morbid ruminations and tackles each question with sincerity and a slight stutter. Still, Staples and the band had to be able to relate on some level when they lent their music to Trouble Every Day, a score that conjured a dreamy, decadent atmosphere of romantic obsession reminiscent of soft-focus early-'70s horror-soft-core shtick such as Daughters of Darkness and The Bare-Chested Countess. At times they even manage to inject an ineffable sense of soul into the feverish, poseur-infested pseudo-gore fest, just where the photogenic, zombified Vincent Gallo and Beatrice Dalle fail.

Staples is so gentlemanly – or so politic – that he can barely emit an opinion on the film, which became notorious for causing multiple audience members to lurch out of its Cannes screening in search of some imagined vomitorium.

"It's very hard for me to have an opinion about the film, like it's hard for me to have an opinion about this record [Waiting for the Moon], which we've been working on for all this time, because you just get so involved in it and so excited; it's very difficult to have a viewpoint," he said. "You want it to be successful, and you want that original idea to shine through and to mean something, and it doesn't seem like a lot of people got that idea from Trouble Every Day. All they saw was the surface of it and the things that upset them. But I think Claire would maintain that it's a film about desire. About kissing. About loving someone so much you want to devour them."

Desire, if not blood lust, plays a part in the complicated joys of Tindersticks. Irony drips from the title of Simple Pleasure, the band's acclaimed fourth album, which marked the band's turn toward gospel and soul strokes and reveled mild-manneredly in Staples's voluptuous, almost Gene Pitney-esque brand of lovelornness ("I Know That Loving," "If She's Torn"). Previously, the group drew the drapes close and went darker with Curtains (Quicksilver/London/Polygram, 1997) and grand, gritty dramas like "Another Night In" and "Don't Look Down," where longing and loss uneasily commingle before throwing a royal, beautifully dramatic snit that John Barry, Lee Hazelwood, and Scott Walker would have approved of.

Waiting for the Moon treads a path between Curtains and Can Our Love ... with its varied textures, pop explorations, and tentative experiments such as "4:48 Psychosis," which borrows lyrics from a play of the same name by late playwright Sarah Kane, whose love of the ensemble's music led to their recent shows – the first by any band – at the Royal Court Theatre in London. "My hands round your throat / If I kill you now they'll never know / Wake me up if I'm sleeping / By the look in your eyes I know the times nearly come / Wake me up cause I'm dreaming / They'll never believe what's been happening here," Staples murmurs, singing about a euthanasia love pact on "Until the Morning Comes" in an almost painfully sweet tone that evokes Aaron Neville. Lush and lightly dusted with strings and bell-like piano, Tindersticks' music turns cheatin' hearts and romantic rejection into foreplay ("Sometimes It Hurts") and suicidal thoughts into something akin to a sensual massage ("My Oblivion"). Moonlight, madness, and morose moods – these are the things that Waiting for the Moon is made of.

For Waiting, Staples, violinist Dickon Hinchliffe, keyboardist David Boulter, guitarist Neil Fraser, drummer Al Macauley, and bassist Mark Colwill just followed the stars, took a year, and unreined their intuition. The singer said they wanted to let the songs unfold while working in his home studio as well as at Great Linford Manor and Eastcote, "trying to catch songs as they were written, as the sparks were kind of flying around."

"It just kind of formulated itself and tracklisted itself and that became the title of the album. It just kind of grew like that, really," he explained. The title track itself "just kind of stuck there and sat in the middle of the record, and we kind of built around it."

Staples believes that working method was a success, though he couldn't wait till it was all over. "It kind of left me thinking, I'm never going to make a record over a long period of time ever again," he said with a little chuckle. "It just prolongs the pain, you know."

At one point five years ago it seemed likely that Staples would finally be put out of his misery and it would be curtains for Tindersticks. Part of it had to do with playing their type of highly emotional music night after night, which, Staples confesses, is difficult. "It's something that you kind of have to give yourself up to and you kind of have to feel and you kind of get through it," he said.

"I suppose we reached a point where we didn't really understand what we were doing and why were doing it because, I suppose, we weren't getting the fundamental joy out of it in a way," Staples offered. "Can Our Love ... was really a rebuilding record, almost to kind of see what came of it and taking tentative steps back to it, rebuilding ourselves in a different way. So we're kind of at the stage now where we're looking forward to coming to America and playing and doing lots of other things and hopefully at the end of it we won't be in pieces. It's happened in the past."

Perhaps they took the advice of Al Green and decided to stay together, if not forever, then for now. "I think perhaps after our first and second albums, we went on a downward curve, and I suppose in our own mind we lost grasp of something, and I think we were kind of waiting to hit bottom. We've been climbing out of that. It's been good times, it's been bad times, really, but it's never been the same times," he said with a little laugh. "But it feels good at the moment, and that's the main thing."

play Fri/8 and Sat/9, 9 p.m, Bimbo's 365 Club, 1025 Columbus, S.F. $20-$22. (415) 474-0365.

August 6, 2003