Tindersticks, Barbican. London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

As openings go, the Tindersticks' entrance tonight is a nicely teasing one. "I wouldn't shut your eyes just yet," whispers the band's violinist, Dickon Hinchliffe, taking the initial vocal on the creaking "El Diablo En El Ojo": "I wouldn't turn the lights down yet..."

The subtext of the song is unfinished business, but still, these are tense times for the 'Sticks' devoted fan-base. Rumours of a split have shadowed this most artfully noir-ish of British bands since they left the stage at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival in 2004 with talk of "laying a ghost to rest". Since then, Hinchliffe has been busy with soundtrack work, and the sextet's singer, Stuart Staples, has made two solo albums, one of which is called, perhaps ominously, Leaving Songs.

Tonight's gig wasn't about the 'Sticks' future, either, but their past. Staged as part of the Don't Look Back series, in which bands play one of their albums in full, it saw them revisiting the chamber-symphonies of strings and sadness from their second, untitled album, released in 1995 to justified acclaim.

Made with heart, style and art, it's as good a reason as any to fall for the band. Horn-players, a string section and a man on bowed saw and percussion are required to bring its textures to life tonight, but despite this grandiosity, it's darkly, seductively intimate. The bed is the key setting for its small-hours songs. On the lush "Tiny Tears", a fretful man waits for his lover to crawl into bed beside him; on "Talk to Me", Staples croons enigmatically about something creeping out of the ground, "back into our bed".

These settings are mined for richly cinematic atmospherics. The expressionist instrumental "Vertauen III" sounds like Ennio Morricone having a panic attack, while the mournful horn and regretful vocal of "No More Affairs" evokes images of sad Frenchmen in overcoats.

The results are incredibly absorbing because the songs exist in every rich, tense, tender note. When everyone on stage is playing, as on the frenetic close of the tragicomic "My Sister", careful orchestration ensures that every contribution counts, from Al Macauley's busily brush-stroked drums to the bowed saw and Staples' tambourine. At the opposite extreme, on the skin-tinglingly minimal "Cherry Blossoms", the intuitive tension between a barely touched piano and an aching violin holds the audience rapt.

The response is reverential but not precious. The 'Sticks' future might look dark, but the spark was still there tonight.

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