Tindersticks at the Opera House (735 Queen East), Sunday (August 3). $20. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
The idea of the suited po-faced Tindersticks gentlemen loosening up and jamming spontaneously in the studio might seem unlikely, but apparently that's what happened. For their new Waiting For The Moon album, the Tindersticks have unbuttoned their waistcoats and rocked out, gently. Vocalist Stuart Staples's familiar middle-of-the-night mumbling remains in place, as do the dramatic string-enhanced orchestrations. But for the first time in ages, the group doesn't sound like they're on autopilot.
It's a decidedly lighter-sounding record - at least, as light as an album that opens with the line "My hands round your throat" can be.
"This is the first record for a while that we actually feel good about," confesses guitarist Dickon Hincliffe from home. "We didn't worry or care about anything, even the end result.
"We've made enough records so that we're in that odd position of always thinking what kind of band the Tindersticks actually are. It's a continual discussion: What do we do now? Do we change the sound of the group, write a specific style of song?
"We've tried to push ourselves in different ways in the past, and it's only been moderately successful. With this album, it was about not trying to do anything. When we made our first record, we were very naive about what we were doing, and we tried to make this one with a lot of that, uh, ignorance in it.
"People think that we always have grandiose ideas and that everything's orchestrated, but that's just not the case. You've got to trust me."
Ironically, one of the best songs on Waiting For The Moon is one of the most overtly arranged, least spontaneous songs the group's ever done.
Sometimes It Hurts features guest vocals from Mexico-born, Montreal-based cabaret crooner Lhasa de Sela, who broke big after the release of her 1997 disc La Llorona but then vanished after signing a major-label deal.
Obscure as it seems, the wrist-slitting charm of Lhasa's dusky voice is a perfect fit for the typically grim ballad.
"We were looking for someone to sing a duet with Stuart and we heard her album through the guy who engineers for us," Hincliffe explains. "I just love the attitude in her voice, this kind of strange mixture of tones and attitude. She's a real character, and you can hear that in her voice."
Their newfound casual air aside, what also worked in the Tindersticks' favour is the way the line is blurred between their proper albums and their ongoing soundtrack work.
Piecing together moody soundtracks from their dramatic orchestral pop seems obvious, but the group have worked hard to bring that wide-screen attitude out of the film scores and into their pop music.
"We don't treat the two massively differently," Hincliffe says. "When you're working on film music, you obviously write with images in mind, but that happens for us anyway. I always have these reels of images running through my head when I'm writing.
"I guess that's not something you're supposed to tell people or they'll think you're mad, but it's true."