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Songs We Love: tindersticks, 'Hey Lucinda'


The Waiting Room cover art.
/ Courtesy of the artist

For me, it is impossible to separate tindersticks' music from the times in my life when we intersected, because we never quite lived together. That youthful moment of discovery when, despite the commercial juggernaut of grunge/Nirvana/Seattle and the nascent ascendance of what would turn into Britpop, Melody Maker, one of U.K. music's bibles of the time, named the group's self-titled debut 1993's album of the year ("How could I not have heard it?"); going out to New York's prime indie-mart of the time, Kim's Underground, to buy it and upon doing so being bewitched by its grandeur. The band's sound was already fully formed: Stuart Staples' spectacularly evocative baritone croon, drowning in a mix of boozy goth romanticism akin to Nick Cave's Bad Seeds, French pop's chamber-soul and the dying breadth of shoegaze.

Or the period around the turn of the millennium, when the group's idiosyncratic flirtations with classic soul music soundtrack'd a series of romantic earthquakes (including the departure of one long-time partner, who took all the tindersticks albums upon moving out, forcing me to repurchase). Or the band's sporadic reappearances the past decade — irregular albums and musical placements, at times wonderfully absurd (Eastbound & Down), at others thoroughly apropos (scoring a slate of Claire Denis films, guitarist/string player Dickon Hinchliffe's music for the Oscar-winning Winter's Bone) — which mirrored a relationship that's neither fully committed nor ever over ... just like the band. Which is to say that, after 22 years with tindersticks, if anything's happening, it's deeply personal and eloquently reflective.

So it goes with the group's remarkable new album, its long-in-the-works eleventh studio offering, The Waiting Room, at once a continuation, a surprise and a marker of loss and decline. This notion is even more specific to "Hey Lucinda," a duet between Staples and the Mexican-American singer Lhasa de Sela, that is one of the album's cornerstones; the last of several collaborations between the two vocalists.

It is a grand torch song, a conversation between a man and a woman — definitely old friends, maybe also lovers — with a conceit as old as pop: He wants her to come out for a drink or a dance, but she is not inclined. And yet the sonic setting is light-years away from that of a pop band — harmonium, glockenspiel, strings and woodwinds, plus at a crucial point, low-end brass that pushes the song into a deeply funereal direction — presenting the notion that even were the night out to go down, it wouldn't hold a celebration. The words reinforce this. Staples keeps intoning that "time is running out" and when Lhasa's expresses her tiredness, Staples warns, "That feeling is a creeping one." Autumnal reservations keep coming up, with Lhasa at one point singing that "I only dance to remember/ how dancing used to feel."

But do not mistake all this darkness for despondence. These are exchanges between people with lives fully lived — Lhasa: "These dirty little cigarettes we smoke/and the liquor it just throws a cloak over the feelings we should show" — and if there are regrets ... well, that's as natural as the rest of it. When Lhasa briefly slips into a major key to tell Staples, "I may be waiting for you," the sense is that she's not going to be at the bar, but on the other side. And so she is. The vocal was among the last recordings that Lhasa was to make; after a long battle with breast cancer, she passed away on Jan. 1, 2010.

The Waiting Room is out on Jan. 22 on City Slang.

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