Review Summary: "Isn't that Doofus Wainwright over there, just a-whistlin' past the graveyard?"
The Tiger Lillies dodged the 'sophomore slump' banana skin by quickly releasing two rough and ready follow ups to 'Births, Marriages and Deaths' in the form of 'Ad Nauseum' and 'Spit Bucket'; a clever move that bought the band some time and added to their song pool for live performances, though in terms of actually furthering their sound they were effectively a double dollop of treading water. With full length number four the Lillies finally stop avoiding the issue and take on the daunting challenge of bettering the debut; here the band tighten up the song writing, vary the sound palette and pay a little more attention to the accepted traditions of 'the rock album'. As much as it could be argued 'The Brothel To The Cemetery' is still overlong (it clocks in at just under an hour), the uneven feel that blighted the previous three albums to varying degrees has finally been jettisoned. More than this, the sound now feels better fleshed out, while the songs themselves are written in such a fashion you could even picture them being performed by more famous and/or conventional artists.
In particular, if there was one Tiger Lillies album you could imagine being stripped to just the music and then handed to Tom Waits to sing over it would be this one. Of course his gruff n' gravelly vocal style sits at the polar opposite side of the scale to Martyn Jaques's warped falsetto. Nevertheless, all these songs have that same aesthetic you'd associate with Waits and with some minor alterations you can easily imagine him crooning over a piano and horns crawl like 'Tiger Lillie Line' or barking over the funeral procession march of the exceptional 'Crime'. The other touchstone here are the Tindersticks who had emerged onto the mid-90s indie scene at roughly the same time; the stately ballads 'Pretty Soon' and 'Russians' certainly have a lot in common with their work, while elsewhere the flashes of organ on 'Roll Up' and bluesy guitar on 'Mortuary' will ring a few bells.
Whether or not you consider Tom Waits or the Tindersticks as particularly conventional what can't be disputed is that, by the standard of the Lillies output, this is the most traditionally constructed and paced of all their albums. 'The Brothel To The Cemetery' can therefore be considered the easiest entry point into their mammoth discography, and certainly the consistency on display here is near miraculous with barely a dip below the level of excellent. Even the relatively weaker inclusions here have a lot to recommend them, whether it's the assertion Jesus had a voice like 'Joni Mitch...ell' on 'Heaven to Hell' or the 'did he just say that?' line concerning a local orphan's home in 'Terrible', you can guarantee there'll always be at least one Jaques lyric to squeeze your bum and slap your cheeks when you least expect.
Better yet, the highlights included here rank among the band's all time best and are ingeniously spaced evenly among the nineteen song track list. Live staples 'Banging in the Nails' and 'Slough' are pushed to the front of the pack, their obvious task to make sure the album comes flying out of the traps. The surprisingly sweet and sympathetic character sketch 'Arthur' paints a picture of the ultimate working class slob before maligning the 'chav' became a national past time, in particular cock an ear for the perfectly delivered line 'you keep a pit bull 'cos they're a lovely dog'. 'Crime' is very silly, adapting Chopin's 'Funeral March' into a song about your family owning a brothel and your sister working the peepshows, 'carrots between cheeks'. Meanwhile 'Russians' and 'Tiger Lillie Line' stand out for their widescreen cinematic style, a quality that affords the album a certain grandeur that feels unique among the band's catalogue.
So at the final count can 'Brothel' truly be considered the Tiger Lillies answer to 'Rain Dogs'? Well, it may not rival that release for pure musical invention but the two albums nonetheless share a similar tonal palette, as well as that all important scuzzy appeal. If this band were ever in danger of making a breakthrough as a 'normal' band then you'd guess it would have been off the back of this album; it didn't happen and eventually the Lillies would switch their focus to developing the stage show side of their act and receiving the acclaim of the theatre set instead. That's got to go down as a smart move because who'd want to resign themselves to attempting to trump this album at its own game every other year? A thankless task I tell you.