Tindersticks, The Hungry Saw [Constellation Records]
For the Tindersticks’ seventh album, The Hungry Saw, fresh air could be the biggest influence. After five years of non-activity—with frontman Stuart Staples moving to France and declaring that continuing with the band would amount to nostalgia, and the group responding by going on an extended hiatus—fans wondered if the English band was throwing in the towel. In the meantime, Staples released two solo albums, and founding member and violinist Dickon James Hinchliffe decided to move on to composing film music (including soundtracks for Keeping Mum and the upcoming Last Chance Harvey). It seemed that this spelled the end. Fortunately, though, a breather was just what the group needed to get back into creating the layered, elemental sound that they’re known for.
The story of Tindersticks began with the release of their self-titled album in 1993. Infused with a moody, dramatic, and genre-bending sound, it contrasted distinctly with the British pop and American grunge flourishing at the time. The first time I heard Staples’ vibrating baritone, reminiscent of Nick Cave or Leonard Cohen (a comparison played with on the third album, Curtains, in the title of the song “I Was Your Man”) it was so discomfiting that it gave me a chill. Listening to the group’s self-titled 1995 album, which fans refer to as Number 2, there was something beyond the simple decision of whether I liked it—something animal, something deeper than my conscious brain that was drawing me back to it. I wasn’t alone in my attraction: By that time, the misfit, so-called miserable band was very much in the spotlight; they seemed to have touched a nerve in many other listeners as well.
But let me be very clear: Tindersticks are not a humorless lot. They hold up the mirror to our anodized souls, breaking the glass that separates the performer from the world. Tindersticks tells us stories about ourselves, like the Silver Jews’ David Berman, or Morrissey, who has a similar ability to get at a feeling with poetic narrative. (Both men, like Staples, have also taken flack for their singing ability.) That awareness can be seen in the rhetorical question in the song “Boobar”: “Was there a time we really sold ourselves out? / We wanted so much more / We wanted something else.”
Unlike the albums that came before, The Hungry Saw feels like a freight train delivering feathers to the future. There are familiar elements here, including the soul influences and rich orchestration that the group is known for. Sixteen “players” are listed in the liner notes, including original members David Boulter and Neil Fraser and newcomer Thomas Belhom. There are three violinists taking the place of Hinchliffe, attempting to maintain the dramatic flair his playing brought. But there is no longer the same level of cinematic building; the surge of lightness, even poppiness, on the album is in stark contrast to their last release, the melancholic Waiting for the Moon.
“Yesterday’s Tomorrows” embodies that symbolic moving forward. It marches in with brass, organ, flute, and methodical drumming. The touch of flute and the twangy sound on “The Flicker of a Little Girl” draws upon the folk of the early seventies, like Nick Drake or Vashti Bunyan. The album’s title track plays with a narrative on an obsession with flesh: “He’s got a hungry saw / The first cut is the skin, the second is the muscle / There’s a crack of the bone, and he’s at your heart.” It’s a catchy song, the kind that you wake up humming. It helps, in this case, that the subject matter is a bit grim, reminiscent of my favorite lines from Number 2’s “Snowy in F# Minor”: “Did you ever wonder what’s inside that keeps us together? / Did you ever want to take that knife and discover?” The physicality of these ideas suggests that you have to dig in to get the emotions out. It’s fitting, then, that Staples sees The Hungry Saw as a metaphor for either creation or destruction.
“The Turns We Took” could be a song about the history of the group: “For we set out so long ago…I can’t remember how or why we took that road,” Staples croons, “but our song is carried in the wind.” The song’s backing vocals and sweeping violins make me want to re-listen to Echo and the Bunnymen’s Ocean Rain. And the last track on the album, “Turns We Took,” ends by asking, “But is the ending so near?”—another example of Staples’ wry wit.
The Hungry Saw was recorded in Staples’ studio, Chien Chanceux (Lucky Dog), located in Limousin, France. As a Francophile myself, I can only imagine that inviting musician friends to a house–studio in the French countryside is the most appropriate condition for producing such delicious sounds. While the record feels like a return to form, it does not displace Number 2 as my favorite. It does, however, give us something to hold onto.