Stuart Staples

Leaving Songs

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Leaving Songs by Tindersticks frontman Stuart Staples is his second solo album; his first, Lucky Dog Recordings 03-04, wasn't released in the States until now, as it is included here, thankfully, as a bonus disc. Leaving Songs is a true departure for Staples. The vocals and backing tracks were recorded in Nashville by Mark Nevers with the overdubs recorded back at Lucky Dog in the U.K. After the first lines of "Goodbye to Old Friends," the opening cut, it's obvious that this record is different, in its way, from what Staples has done before, either with or without his band; the tempo, horn lines, the chorus of female backing vocalists. That's not to say it's not immediately identifiable as Staples. There's no hiding that voice. He emerges here as a more "traditional" kind of songwriter; the tunes are more conventional in structure, but like his spiritual mentor Leonard Cohen, Staples' lyrics are rooted firmly in the terrain of love, loss, regret, passage, dissolution, and absence. The cover, a painting of a seaman smoking a pipe, is telltale, as is the title. Each song here is about transition, walking away, looking back after having left, preparation for leaving, and all of them read through the guise of love. "There Is a Path," which closely resembles a Cohen track with its gentle female vocalists crooning in the background, finds Staples continuing to move ahead despite the pull of memory and sense impression. Strings, a glockenspiel, and acoustic guitars wind their ways around every word. "The Road Is Long" is a duet with Maria McKee. Its languid tempo, with sparse piano and acoustic guitars and a whispering organ ushering it in as Staples enters almost immediately, spelling out his desire to be with the Beloved, no matter what else he has to leave behind. McKee answers, she's tired of movement and running. A pedal whines in the dance, and McKee's conviction is complete; there is no compromise. Think Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood and you get the picture. The other duet here is with Llasa de Sela. The sheer open country melody finds Staples talking about his feeling of leaving supported by an upright piano, a double-time acoustic guitar whispering to his every word. And when the drums kick in, it's de Sela replying about the personal loss incurred in wiping away the past and the people leaving loved ones behind. The drums become more insistent, underscoring these lines with urgency. And then the horns and the strings create the third possibility: the promise of a new start, one in pastoral grandeur. They back off a bit when Staples insists in on having his way and de Sela wins over the strings and horns as the argument continues. It's a breathtaking moment. The strolling country of "This Old Town" is utterly charming. "Already Gone" is one more song about the desire to leave and its cost. Each song winds into the next, resulting with "Pulling into the Sea," where both departure and arrival become the same thing with softly articulated electric and acoustic guitars, brushed snares, and a piano filling the ends of lines of two lovers together not running, not arriving, simply together in the no man's land of the sea, as the ebb and flow of the music is relaxed, gently, oh so gently, lapping up against the lyric. For those who haven't heard Lucky Dog Recordings, the contrast will be startling, though Leaving Songs is enough on its own as Staples' most mature statement yet.

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