POP: The Tindersticks; ICA, London

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The Independent Culture
The Tindersticks' image is set in stone. Their debut double-album three years ago was full of songs of desperate love, back-alley violence and occasional masturbation. A second album last year did little to lift the gloom. Their current release, a soundtrack to a French film about teenage pregnancy, hasn't exactly helped.

It's a parodically seedy image that has largely obscured what was really remarkable about that debut - the crashing, diverse noise it made, all strings and organs and raging dynamics. But last week at the ICA, The Tindersticks gave their music every opportunity to be heard.

For five nights, ending on Saturday, they attempted to play every song they've recorded. Each set was different - the first electric, the second spoken word, the third with strings. By the end, they'd revealed more of their strengths and weaknesses than they might have wished. The revelations started right from the first, electric night. The Tindersticks are louder and more urgent than one could ever have expected from the records, forcing each song to the point of breakdown. But, frustratingly, it's a point they won't pass. It seems that the musicians are too good, too well-drilled, to be capable of chaos. More worryingly, when the layers of sound subside, the band's impact sinks with it. The fourth night, emphasising ballads and instrumentals, was the weakest. The third, when a string section swelled the group's sweep, was the most uniformly strong.

The Tindersticks' careful use of noise poses the question of whether their music is really rock 'n' roll. By the end of the week, one was left wondering how near they are to pop music. The smallness of the ICA's theatre limited the audience each night to such an extent that the band were clearly among friends. In this insular context, they were cheered to the rafters no matter what they did.

The worrying thing was how much this appeared to suit them. The songs which they come back to - notably "Tiny Tears", an epic ballad - are no less likely to be hits in today's whacked-out chart than, say, "Common People". But where Pulp needed pop success to make sense, the Tindersticks seem content in their corner.

It was only on the last night that they indicated that they may yet go further. In the middle of a clutch of urgently played songs from their debut, the band finally got lost. Singer Stuart Staples, shirt stained with sweat, hair dripping and shapeless, sounded ragged; the band, at last, sounded unhinged. "You don't know how good you are, do you?" someone shouted. Staples moved deliberately to the mic, and gave an unreadable smile.

For a few minutes, at least, he'd answered all the questions he needed to.

Nick Hasted

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