Pop; TINDERSTICKS, Her Majesty's Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture
Under a cloud of cigarette smoke, a beer-swilling orchestra of 30 are tuning up before a beehived, corsetted conductress. When the six Tindersticks come shambling on stage and Stuart Staples - in trademark shabby black suit - launches his growling baritone into "Blood", the cacophony becomes intentional. Strings, brass and woodwind battle and blend with guitars, drums and keyboards, creating harmony out of discord and music all the more exciting for its threat of implosion. Tonight, the melodramatic ambience is so palpable you almost expect the Phantom of the Opera to come swinging off a gilt-encrusted gargoyle.

The hip face of easy listening, Nottingham's Tindersticks have garnered a word-of-mouth following through an idiosyncratic sound that owes much to fanatical attention to detail. Every strangely comforting song contains finely observed cameos of love, loss and despair. Delicate, multi-layered arrangements - an accordion refrain here, minimalist tambourine there - are delivered with a finesse that belies an apathetic persona. Be they self-indulgent poseurs (Staples hardly even strums his National Steel acoustic) or unsung geniuses, their air of seedy theatricality makes for compelling viewing.

As the rest of the band play, smoke and shoe-gaze with intensity, the quiffed Staples cups the mike, stares into the middle distance and intones "These days I'm only happy when I'm tied down next to you" over Dickon Hinchcliffe's swirling electric violin. Repeatedly running his fingers through his hair and employing all the mannerisms of a consumptive Bryan Ferry, his presence renders everyone else anonymous. Even so, he can't sing. Sounding better when whispering the confessionals of "City Sickness", his occasionally atonal saloon-bar croonings on the likes of "El Diablo En El Ojo" are rendered even more so by initially faulty acoustics, remedied by some frantic gesticulations stage left. But the frisson created by challenging the boundaries of good and bad comprises much of Tindersticks' curiously uplifting appeal, one which creeps up rather than leaps out, so that by the second half the pandemonium soothes rather than grates.

After a selection from the drolly titled First and Second Tindersticks albums, three new songs ("This is the first one, I s'pose") see a more animated Staples attempting a couple of pelvic thrusts while singing over his shoulder to the orchestra. A false start is overridden with endearing self-deprecation. "Told you it was new," he says, and relaunches into lyrics that tell of honey dripping from his claws. The tremulous oboe and clarinet accompaniment of "The Not Knowing" leads into the Hammer horror keyboards of "Drunk Tank", and the Tindersticks leave to thunderous applause, encore ensured by the fact that the orchestra stay seated. With the stage backlit like some shimmering underwater grotto, they saunter smugly back to perform "Tiny Tears", and Staples wraps his arms around himself with congratulatory fervour before tackling a two-finger xylophone solo on the languorous "Cherry Blossoms". In an audience transported to a place of reverie, the solitary standing ovation in the front row seems somehow superfluous. Tindersticks already know how good they are.

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