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Cheerful melancholia: Contradiction in terms?
on 3 July 2005
Saint Etienne are one of those consistently surprising bands. For 15 years we have followed them on this whimsical journey, and they show no sign of fatigue as yet. Each album contains the requisite pop/dance stormers that would probably harass the Top 10 relentlessly were they by some personality-free record label-marionettes. Similarly, with every release you know there's going to be a few tracks that you will probably listen to a couple of times then write off, only to find yourself a few months / years down the line giving them a second chance and wondering what on earth was wrong with you.
Their last offering, "Finisterre", didn't even bother the Top 40 album chart. An absolute travesty when you consider the musical hot water bottles and duvets the masses are missing out on. Saint Etienne have a knack for producing albums that are as different from the last as dog food is from hairnets. But still they remain unmistakably Saint Etienne.
"Tales From Turnpike House" is no exception. After initial trepidation due to pre-release single "Side Streets" (not that I don't like the song, I just had visions of an album full of acoustic ballads) I was ecstatic to find "Tales..." was just what I was hoping for. Not that I knew what I was hoping for until I heard it. That's the beauty of Saint Etienne. You never know what to expect, so don't have any expectations. As such they never disappoint. With each new release it's like discovering a new band.
"Tales..." is much less electronic than it's predecessor, but still instantly recognisable. Being a "concept" album (usually words to turn your hair grey, but don't fret) set around a London tower block, you may be forgiven for thinking this album might be a difficult listen, at least a touch depressing? But this is Saint Etienne folks, a group who always manage to find the silver lining in the thickest, densest, most ominous rainclouds. The wonderfully harmonious Beach Boys-esque opener, "Sun In My Morning", sets the benchmark, and coaxes you into the belief that although the daily-grind may be hard for these larger-than-life characters, there is still sunshine, love and hope in their lives.
"Milk Bottle Symphony" is vintage Saint Etienne; a slightly quirky pop number smothered in Sarah's melted chocolate vocals. A lovely, thought-provoking song, it introduces us to one of the main recurring characters of the album; drinker Gary Stead. The only truly sad creation on the LP, you still can't help but feel a certain compassion and empathy for him by the closing number.
Fortunately Saint Etienne seem to instinctively know that over-characterising the album would be overkill (if only Blur had had the same insight with "The Great Escape"), and the first of the several pop-stormers, "Lightning Strikes Twice" has a more generic lyric written in first rather than third person. It still nestles happily into the album though, as do "A Good Thing" and "Stars Above Us", which take the lead of "Lightning...". Incidentally, "Stars..." and "Lightning..." are both co-written and co-produced by Xenomania, the team behind much of Girls Aloud's material. Singles-in-waiting methinks. Particularly "Stars..." which had me singing along by the second chorus, and is a bouncy, hook-laden gem about subverting your circumstances and enjoying yourself regardless.
This album may not be perfect, and there are a couple of real dogs (the contrived "Relocate" on which David Essex duets, "Last Orders For Gary Stead" is a bit of a dirge and "The Birdman Of EC1" doesn't really seem to go anywhere) all of which are on the second half of the album. Consequently the first half is far superior. Oddly, two of these three tracks are written by Bob and Pete without Sarah. It seems that Crackers (who once said she didn't want to be just some dolly frontwoman, in the days when she didn't contribute to the compositions) adds that bit of extra sparkle these days.
As a result, like with most Saint Etienne albums which embrace a number of styles and genres, this may not be an absolutely consistent listen. But this is a group who have always been able to evoke emotions no other band can hope to touch. Who can create meaning from things we take for granted so as to make the likes of Coldplay hang it's head in pretentious shame. So frankly, when a band can craft such beautiful tunes and say so much with inane day-to-day life as their template, who cares?