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Gold Diggers of 1994

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TINDERSTICKS
LOUNGE AX, JUNE 16

In the June 10 edition of this section Peter Margasak closed his article on the band Combustible Edison and similar 50s kitsch revivalists by saying, "Celebrating America's pop-culture history is one thing: emulating it without a drop of irony is either impossible or moronic, and maybe both." And he's right. When wading through the detritus of bygone pop ephemera, only the elements that instigate a smirk qualify as kitsch. The smirk derives from the experience that we as a culture have gained since the era in question. It's a collective sense of "if I knew then what I know now." Straight-faced re-creations of such phenomena can only be regarded as moronic, disingenuous, or shallow.

Tindersticks, the latest popsters to catch the wave of ever overinflated British press hype, aren't so much revivalists as prospectors panning for gold in the stream of 60s pop gems. They seem convinced that certain aspects of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood's 20-year-old cubic zirconiums will prove valuable in a 90s setting. But to mistake the time-specific nature of cultural products for timelessness is to misunderstand their essence just as completely as Margasak's revivalists.

It doesn't help Tindersticks' cause that they're English. Brits have always been indiscriminate consumers of American pop-music culture. For more than 30 years they've been pilfering our gadgets and wielding them recklessly, like an infant with a channel changer. British groups from the Beatles and the Stones through the Sex Pistols and the Style Council have hollowly mimicked American forms, capturing the style but ignoring the substance. They have failed to realize that playing a role isn't the same as living it; putting on the crown doesn't make you king.

Like many of their countrymen, Tindersticks bring an unseemly theatricality to their music. In addition to the affected, trite exclusion of the "the" from their name, there's Rudy Tomjanovich-look-alike frontman Stuart Staples, who dons a new persona with each of the 21 songs on the sextet's 77-minute debut. All the while the band skulks behind him making moods and atmospheres. Rock critics have described Tindersticks as "cinematic," "spooky," and "romantic," though I'm at a loss to explain why such words are used as compliments.

What keeps Tindersticks just barely above water, barely engaging, is the occasional moment of inadvertent frailty: Staples's voice going inexplicably flat, the false start/restart of "Blood," the noisy, out-of-place organ on "City Sickness." On a recent Thursday at Lounge Ax, however, the frailty was gone, replaced by polish and self-assuredness. Staples, dapper in a camel-colored linen suit, swaggered (there's no other word for it) around the stage, evoking a drunk Bryan Ferry or a sober Nick Cave. The band played everything with such ease and subtlety as to reduce the pervasive calm of the album to pervasive boredom, while rendering the rare instance of spontaneous energy self-conscious, unconvincing, inflated. There was no evidence of the frailty that floats the record, and the performance left me with the uneasy sensation that I'd been duped: Allowing mistakes to pass unedited carries ethical and aesthetic weight. Strategically placing them does not.

In no fewer than five of the seven articles on the Tindersticks I've read, Staples makes mention of 60s cheese-pop meister Hazelwood, the ultrasuccessful songwriter and producer best known for his duets with Nancy Sinatra. A more familiar touchstone, arrangement-wise, might be Tony Hatch, the "genius" behind such Petula Clark masterpieces as "Downtown." It is with such artists that Tindersticks' gaudy string and woodwind sections, their canned organs, and their diagrammatic song structures find their genesis. Hazelwood's creations carry no inherent weight. Their sole value exists in retrospect, as a reflection of the follies of days gone by. Staples's insistence on propagating the hiply unhip reference is an attempt to create an excusing precedent for Tindersticks' nostalgic excess. What they (and the gullible and culpable British press) don't understand is that the passage of time is essential to nostalgia's charm. The trappings of yesterday don't have the same flavor or consistency when freed of the implications of the ensuing hours. Tindersticks, unable to stand on their own 12 feet, have buttressed themselves with a man who, even 20 years ago, didn't have a leg to stand on.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Philin Phlash.

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