Contrary to the social mores that marked the era, the British demimonde found a way to take the starch out of its collars with the confessional smut novel that Victorian England perfected. Sure, France likes to believe that its raunch is saucier, but the French are far too sexually comfortable to imbue their bawdy tales with the pangs of guilt that make naughtiness all the more luscious. It takes repression of an entirely different order to recount brutal, first-person tales of riding crops beating bottoms bloody in a language that goes to great pains not to offend. And though the Brits seem more reticent than Americans to admit their sexual foibles, you can probably bet that the anonymously penned A Man With a Maid was more widely read than Anthony Trollope's Ayala's Angel back in the 1800s.

Taken together, however, the two camps fuse into a certain charm that's distinctly British. Hiding behind the good graces is a devilish dandy just dying for the rod. That hint of kink has always lurked beneath the sometimes soothing, sometimes sinister, sounds of the Tindersticks. Ever since their 1992 start in Nottingham, songwriter and vocalist Stuart Staples has wrapped his baritone rasp around tales that are as dark as a dungeon with floral language in full bloom. And he and the band haven't abandoned their peculiar persuasion for their fifth album proper, Can Our Love..., on which they continue their sensual exploration that swims between the dour and the delicate.

But Tindersticks shouldn't be faulted for staying the course. Backing forlorn romanticism with lush, often stringed orchestrations sculpts the sort of aural angst that ventures dangerously close to the maudlin that Morrissey's oscillated wildly in for the past 20 years. That Staples and the Tindersticks have been able to eschew becoming a joke that isn't funny anymore is a testament to their tact to remain tastefully tawdry.

So when "I've got memories, they keep them away from me/They won't behave, won't be what I want them to be" rolls off Staples' lips in the opener "Dying Slowly," you know you're about to be ravaged by emotional S&M. Can Our Love... isn't all verbal lashes, however. Staples and company also dabble in a little perky paranoia with "People Keep Coming Around," which is as jaunty as anxiety has sounded in some time. It's a brief moment of uplift, though. The title track is soul dirge that showcases Staples' ability to blend Bryan Ferry's croon with Scott Walker's vocal pyrotechnics, while the arrestingly lovely yet depressing "No Man in the World" is anchored primarily by a solitary violin that sounds as anguished as anything in the Dirty Three canon. Like any rich delicacy, the Tindersticks are an acquired taste. But if a lavish mix of love and hate whets your whistle, you'll find yourself submitting to their scabrous tenderness willingly.

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Bret Mccabe

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