In Rank Your Records, we talk to members of bands who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Longtime Tindersticks organist/pianist David Boulter doesn’t usually listen to his own records. But when I asked him to rank the Tindersticks discography from best to worst, he took the assignment seriously.
“I started at the beginning and played the first couple of albums and thought, ‘I don't know if I really want to listen to all of my past,’” he told me. (Curtains, the band’s third album, he estimates he hadn’t heard in 15 years.) But “it's been interesting to listen to the different stages of our musicality. So thank you.”
The moody English outfit has been reliably pumping out chamber-pop masterpieces for more than 20 years with few duds, so I wondered whether Boulter might find anything negative to say. However little the success has translated stateside, Tindersticks was great from the beginning and remains great today, as evidenced by the band’s strong and inventive new LP The Waiting Room (out January 22). Boulter, though, didn’t shy away from aggressive self-critique. He attacked the band’s early-2000s releases as aimless, faulted 2010’s Falling Down a Mountain for being rushed, and shared some miserable memories from before the group’s five-year hiatus. (He was more triumphant about The Waiting Room, which he said he would rank as number one if he could.)
We chatted via Skype one early morning in December. Boulter came prepared to this interview, full of thoughtful self-reflection and a predecided ranking that had clearly been labored over. The ranking does not include Tindersticks’ various soundtrack works, nor live releases.
9. Waiting for the Moon (2003)
David Boulter: The worst one, for me, would be the album called Waiting for the Moon. Because it was the last album we made as the old Tindersticks before we broke down and took a break. I think it's tainted by that a lot. It has a feeling of something that was lost—the feeling that the band hadn't been great for a couple of albums, and I think it got to the point where it just couldn't go on anymore in the way that it did. This album was made at that point, really. So I suppose it doesn't really work. I think when we actually recorded it, we were trying to make something that we were proud of and that we believed in. I think it just doesn't work as an album. When I listen to it now, I can never get into it more than a couple of songs because from the very beginning it doesn't feel like a proper album. It doesn't really succeed.
I always feel like it starts off really strong, but the second half is not as strong.
The only thing with the second half is it's got two of my favorite Tindersticks songs, which are “My Oblivion” and “Runnin’ Wild,” which are songs that I really love. When we get to play them live, they took on their own life in some way. I think they got a bit lost in this album because of the feeling. For me, I kind of just want to skip to the end of the album rather than just listen to the beginning. At the time, I suppose Stuart [Staples] was kind of stepping to the side a bit in the way that the band was working. In the first three songs, there's two songs sung by Dickon [Hinchliffe]. One of them, I think, is a great song. It kind of just felt like the identity of the band was a little lost… The thing that was lacking in the middle period of the Tindersticks albums—just before we split up—was the adventure had gone. It felt like we were ticking over, waiting for the end to come, really.
8. Falling Down a Mountain (2010)
I suppose it's a similar thing for me. It was at a time around five years ago. We'd just got back together as Tindersticks Part Two, kind of. We made an album called The Hungry Saw, which was us getting back together. Falling Down a Mountain came straight after it, and we basically wrote it while we were on tour. At the time we were having our second child. I suppose I felt some distance from it. It felt too quick. It was as though it didn't really capture what we were about. I think we just kind of rushed into doing something to keep the momentum going, when we should have maybe taken a little time to consider it. So I feel unconnected from it, is the reason why it's my second-least favorite. I don't really feel a massive connection to it, personally.
It does feel like you went in some different directions on that album, in terms of style.
I think where we came back with The Hungry Saw, it felt really refreshing but it was kind of what Tindersticks would do next. Whereas I think Stuart especially, making Falling Down a Mountain, wanted [the album] to be a bit different. But it was just too soon to let those ideas grow and accomplish themselves, really.
7. Can Our Love… (2001)
Kind of a shame that it's so low in my rankings, because there are some really great songs on it and some really great moments. I think it was that thing I was saying about Waiting for the Moon. It was the album before that. It's when we really got stuck in this rut. It was strange, because on one hand we were really playing well as a band. We were really tight together. We got the experience. We'd been playing a lot live and we'd done a lot. I think we all knew what we were doing. It kind of meant that people fell into a way of playing that didn't really surprise anything. I think this album has got some really great moments, but as an overall thing, there's something missing that was needed to the point that we had to break up, really. It's just a bit too safe, in some way.
It sounds like you have some unhappy memories of that time in your career.
I think it was a time when we were sort of spending more time questioning what we were doing than just doing things. We'd spend a lot of time working on things. It kind of felt like there was always someone who didn't want to be there for whatever reason, whether it was to do with the band or something personal. It just always felt like you were pulling somebody along. That kind of shows in the music a bit.
What’s your favorite track on the album?
My favorite track would be the single, "Can Our Love…" That kind of really pushed the boundaries of the band. A lot of the other tracks do. But it never really grabbed me as a whole album.
6. Curtains (1997)
I love that one.
I really love it, but I suppose the reason it's coming in fourth from the bottom for me is just playing it again yesterday for the first time in a lot of years. I expected it to make me feel different from what it did. I suppose we made the first two albums in a special, joyous kind of way and everybody was pushing. When we made this album, we were a bit tired and it was a lot of work, so it got a bit frustrating because it was so big and so much work. Whereas the other two albums were very easy and we had a lot of energy, this one felt like a lot of work. I hear that a bit in the songs. Even though I love it. I just feel as though it feels a little bit tired. But it was a very special time for us. I think there was so much expectation on what we might do next. There was this whole thing about Britpop being this new music that everyone was looking at the UK for the first time in a long time to find their musical inspiration. There were a lot of bands doing a lot of good stuff. I think we were kind of considered to be a contender. There was a lot of pressure on this album to prove something.
You felt a lot of pressure to follow up the first two?
Yeah. Which I think it did. And I think it was very successful. It's probably one of the most successful albums we've made. But I just feel a lot of that edge to it, that slight weariness and nervousness about what we were actually doing.
5. Simple Pleasure (1999)
I think all those things I was just saying about Curtains kind of came to a head. We sort of didn’t stop. We knew we had to take turns somewhere. We knew we couldn't continue in the same line. We'd made three double albums, double vinyl albums, that were very big, had a lot of emotion in them. We were doing a lot of touring, and to find that emotion every night took a lot of straining as well. We were influenced a lot by soul music, and a lot of soul music is kind of very sad. [But] it works in a very joyous way—people get up and dance to it. I think we were trying to find a way to make our music emotional but at the same time not really make people dance but have a kind of joyous feeling about it as well.
Do you think you succeeded?
Almost. I think it's about 75 percent there. I think there's a couple of tracks that are wrong and a couple of tracks that just needed a bit more work. The thing that I really love about it was that it kind of felt very brave for us to do that at that time, when everybody was expecting this big ballad sort of album and we made something that was a soul album that was just a single album, and to the point in some way. It lost us probably quite a few fans. But it found us the kind of fans that we like, really—that are more open to a lot of different music.
Which songs do you think should have been cut?
“From the Inside,” the instrumental, was something that was more of a B-side idea that got put on the album. We had a history of making instrumentals, but I don’t think it did enough, really. “Pretty Words” was a song that we struggled with. We were even recording that when we did Curtains, and it was this more epic-sounding song. Those two. They're sort of right in the middle of the first section. They let it down a bit, for me.
4. Tindersticks (1993)
The reason it's not higher up is because I think it was a great album. It had a lot of freedom. [But] I think when we made it, we'd basically recorded a demo version of it in our kitchen, which in some ways to me sounds better than the actual album. But we found the money to book a studio for ten days. And we thought this might be our only chance to make a proper album. We recorded everything we had, basically. There's a lot of different ideas. I really love the way it works. But as a whole album, when I listen to it now, it feels as though it's a little fragmented because of that. I listen to one side of it and think it’s great and don't really feel like putting the other side on. Another day I listen to the other side. As a whole album, it just leaves me feeling a bit confused in that way. At the time it was very exciting to make it. It had all these different ideas. Now that we've learned how to make albums, we tried to make something that's more concise in some way.
For a debut, that’s pretty impressive.
It was. We'd been in bands for a good sort of ten years from leaving school. Just local bands. We built up to it, really. That’s one of the great things about it, that we had the time to experiment a lot before we actually got to recording it. Whereas that’s something that I really notice these days—there's so much pressure on a band to achieve something straight away. It's also very instant. You never really get the chance to let what you're doing grow. For us, this was like ten years of our lives condensed into one album. We were so excited. It was the first time we'd been in a studio where we were not just allowed to do what we wanted, but we had the confidence to do what we wanted. So we used a lot of different instruments. We got people like Terry Edwards to play brass, which was something new for us. It was a big step. I think we really achieved something.
3. The Hungry Saw (2008)
I think it's a very exciting album. I know some people would say, "How could you like that better than your first album?" But there’s some really great songs on there. I think it's got a great feeling. I think it's a proper album. It’s got an introduction, and there's a story that goes through the album for me that takes you all the way through it. Even though there's some very different songs. I think it's got a lot of confidence because we'd been away for a couple years. It felt exciting to make. We had new people in the band. And everything about it felt really refreshing.
Did it feel triumphant at the time, to bring Tindersticks back together?
I think so, because it could easily have been the opposite of that. When Tindersticks fell apart, myself and Stuart [Staples] and Neil [Fraser] had still worked together on his solo albums and on different little projects. It felt like Tindersticks had never really stopped for me. To have my own input into it, it needed to be called something again. It felt as well like we'd created this past, this history, that we had something to be proud of anyway, so why just let it go? There's some important songs for me on there. "The Organist Entertains" was a song that I did on my own, which has become something very important to me. It's a little piece of music.
2. Tindersticks (1995)
Talking about how an album draws you in and tells a story, I think after making the first album, we had this confidence and success and the success obviously gave us a certain amount of freedom and also a lot of expectation. We wrote this album so quickly after the first album. It was kind of ready to come out, within months of releasing the first album. It was all basically new songs. It felt like a really great time to be in the band. Everyone was excited within the band and without. The songs really took a step up from the first album as well, their arrangements and using an orchestra. Everything just felt really exciting and really positive.
It’s a bit of a classic.
At the time as well. We made this first album that people were impressed by, the media was impressed by it. With this, we made a live version of it with quite a large string section—like a 25-piece orchestra—which at that time nobody was doing, really. With the American grunge scene, everything was a small band, a four-piece band. With guitars. We went on the road with an orchestra, and a lot of bands started to do that. I wouldn't say we were the most original, but a lot of bands started to do that kind of thing after us. It was very adventurous. It kind of felt so easy. That's a reason why it's a favorite album of mine.
Are you surprised so many fans choose it as their favorite?
Not really. Because it has so much on it. Whenever we play a concert, at least one of these songs will be something that people will expect to hear. It's something that we still always dip into. “Tiny Tears" was a song we started to hate because we felt like we had to play it every time we did a show. It is a great song. It's kind of like an idea that's universal to people. The way it works, it's inspiring.
Do you think “My Sister” has aged well?
I think it has. I think all of it has, really. “My Sister” was something that was a great adventure. It was kind of a studio-written sort of song in the way that the arrangement worked. It was very challenging to play live. I think it made it really exciting. Every song on this album was challenging for us. Even though we felt excited about making the music, it pushed us a lot musically as well. Especially when we were a six-piece band playing these songs that had orchestral arrangements, For that first stage of Tindersticks, it was probably the best time we ever had.
Why didn’t you find a new title for the record?
We didn't really want our names on the album. At that point it didn't list the members of the band. We would list string players and different people, but we didn't list who we were. It just didn't seem to need a title. Even calling ourselves Tindersticks wasn't any great thought. We just wanted a name. And it was discovered on a beach, on a box of matches that said “Tindersticks” on them. I think the album felt like that as well. It was almost like we discovered the music. Even though we were pushing ourselves, it was sort of magic. I think we liked the idea of the band being just Tindersticks, the album just being Tindersticks. The third album we wanted to be called Tindersticks III. I suppose it's also like the German albums from the 70s, like Neu! and Neu! 2. You don't necessarily need to have a title for an album. It's just a collection of music.
1. The Something Rain (2012)
Why is this at number one?
Because it's so fresh. If I could choose the album which we're about to release, I would probably choose that as my number one. I suppose it feels a bit contrived to choose the most recent. But I think it's because when I listen to [The Something Rain], it just works all the way through for me. It's got a complete feeling. Making the album was a great time. It kind of felt easy. It kind of felt like we'd got back. After making Falling Down a Mountain, everything was working. We were all pushing in the right direction. There's a lot of different ideas, but it's got a very concise feeling to me. And some of my favorite Tindersticks songs ever, really. "Come Inside" is probably in my top five Tindersticks songs.
There’s a jazzy feel to the record.
I suppose that's working with the people that we worked with. One of the things about the original Tindersticks that broke it down was certain people were stuck in their level of musicality. Which wasn't a bad thing. But we just needed things to change a bit. The people we work with now are a lot more open to different ideas and a lot more able to accomplish those ideas. I think we as individuals are always striving to do something slightly different or slightly better in our own minds. I think this album does that.
If you included Across Six Leap Years, where would it be ranked?
I suppose that would be quite high as well. It would be in my top five, definitely. Making that and going into Abbey Road and recording it was really special. You get the atmosphere of the studio as soon as you walk in. You walk down the same staircase that those famous people have walked down. That can be overwhelming, sometimes… I think anyone who wanted to see what we're about would be advised to listen to that record, really. It's about where we are. I think that feeling is something we're trying to carry on with.
Zach’s just a dog, training to be a man. He’s on Twitter: @zzzzaaaacccchhh.