Stuart A. Staples – Lucky Dog Recordings 03-04

Stuart A. Staples
Lucky Dog Recordings 03-04

Whilst the Tindersticks’ decade and a bit existence has strongly held up the belief that a great band best functions as a multi-headed democracy, the decision of frontman Stuart Staples to fashion a solo record isn’t a flawed proposition. Any fears of a diluted despotic product being delivered are easily set aside by the knowledge that Staples is – both literally and metaphorically – the true voice of the Tindersticks’ muse. Essentially, anyone with the right amount of craftsmanship can flatteringly imitate the Tindersticks’ lush musical tapestries (and the likes of Willard Grant Conspiracy, Lambchop, Lincoln et al. have indeed done so), yet nobody can truly match Staples’ lugubrious vocal and lyrical presence. Crudely speaking, Staples could have made a drum ‘n bass record and it would still hold his quintessential mournful warmth. Thankfully, he didn’t of course, but it is ultimately his impassioned presence that fuels this sublime solo debut more than anything.

Pulled together piecemeal in his home studio, with a modicum gathering of guest players (including Tindersticks guitarist Neil Fraser and keyboard-player Dave Boulter, erstwhile ‘Sticks/Gallon Drunk brass-player Terry Edwards, French soundtrack composer Yann Tiersen, and occasional ‘Sticks guest vocalist Gina Foster), Lucky Dog Recordings is Staples’ self-decreed attempt to find “the ugly and awkward” antidotes to his regular lush orchestrations. In essence, this means Staples has returned to the eclectic blueprint of the Tindersticks’ eponymous 1993 debut, to rub out the then embryonic string-laden wide-screen arrangements, in favour of the simpler, murkier, and more skeletal strands of his regular band’s beginnings. In the process, Staples has made the best Tindersticks album that never happened – a subtly beautiful treasure-trove for those who rely on some darkness to direct them to an uplifting light.

It’s such a delight to hear a collection of songs that fit so well into a cohesive mood as well as one that breaks down into great individual chunks. The marvellous “Say Something Now” and its close sibling, “Shame on You,” easily rank alongside the best of the early-Tindersticks canon, fusing Hispanic melodrama to Velvet Underground-like crunchiness. The nocturnal organ and drum machine drone of “Friday Night” gently recalls the dank gut-spilling majesty of the group’s classic “Blood.” Elsewhere, the frail romantic “Dark Days” is even less plugged-in than something from the ‘Sticks’ rare Unwired EP – the only track here that comes close to a one-man-plus-one-guitar scenario. The wonderfully Tom Waitsian “People Fall Down” and “She Don’t Have to be Good to Me” provide some ambling but heartfelt barfly confessions. In between, there are a few breaks from tradition on two integral instrumental pieces; the soothing Augustus Pablo aping “Untitled” and the swooning gospel-like “Somerset House,” on which Foster harmonises with herself wordlessly atop a dainty piano figure and some woozy sax. But perhaps the lightness, darkness, humbleness, and chivalry that courses through the veins of this album are best distilled on the closing lull of “I’ve Come a Long Way,” which genuinely sounds like a lost Otis Redding torch song – high praise indeed.

Whether this album will help Stuart Staples reach out to any listeners beyond his existing fanbase is uncertain, but it ultimately matters little to the enduring impact of this wholesome home-baked delicacy.