Saint Etienne
Tales From Turnpike House

it’s always a bad idea to classify a record as a comeback. Comparisons to past form are often tainted by the novelty of the new release, the faded memories of the previous and downright lazy thought. Besides which, there’s nothing ‘back’ about Saint Etienne’s seventh full-length—it is neither backward-looking, a throwback, nor back-tracking.

While there are elements of the past--the processing and musical depth of The Sound of Water, the full-band feel of Good Humor, and a dash of the blissful pop of their early singles--it’s an overwhelmingly forward, ambitious album for a group fifteen years into their career and long past their commercial prime who could have quite happily introduced no new ideas—musical or thematical—and not challenged their dwindling but loyal fan-base.

But change they have. Despite never having been afraid to make unabashed dance-pop music, even adding subtle electro hues for 2002’s Finisterre, tracks like “Lightning Strikes Twice,” “A Good Thing,” and especially “Stars Above Us” pack heft and groove unlike anything else before, the group having again worked with pop powerhouse Xenomania to excellent effect.

The other welcome new addition is the Beach Boys-esque harmonies that pop up on a number of tracks, lending a gorgeous, autumn-morning tint to the opener “Sun In My Morning,” a doleful, resigned feel to the Good Humor-esque single “Side Streets” and the lyrically trite but sonically thrilling epic-in-four-minutes “Milk Bottle Symphony” (whose rhythm strongly resembles Royksopp’s production on Annie’s “Heartbeat”).

But rather than the up-tempo pop songs and the thoughtful, slower numbers seeming incongruous, they seem to fit together somehow—it could be the sturdy writing of the group, the canny choice of collaborators or any number of things, but the ebbs and flows of the album are close to perfect. The overarching theme of the album—a day in the life of the (fictional) residents of the (actual) Turnpike House can be appreciated or ignored beyond a few names recurring in the lyrics, but there’s a strong sense of continuity throughout.

Even when the dynamics—the awkward, shuffling rock of “Last Orders For Gary Stead” (which nonetheless has a fantastic chorus), or David Essex’s strained vocals on “Relocate”—are occasionally a little forced, both those songs boast a good enough tune to see them through relatively unscathed.

But those clumsy moments are the minority, and “Tales” is packed with great sonic moments; the “Love At First Sight” meets “Lucky Star” groove of polite-disco masterpiece and sure-fire single-in-waiting “Stars Above Us,” the mournful harpsichord that underlines Sarah Cracknell’s sighing delivery on “Slow Down At The Castle” and even the mandolin and warm keyboard chord instrumental “The Birdman of EC1,” which reminds the listener that on early Saint Etienne albums, the interludes really were interludes rather than filler.

Ten tracks into it, Tales From Turnpike House is already a wonderful mix of the credibly danceable, AM-radio-singalong-able, and charmingly twee. That track eleven, "Teenage Winter" stands as one of the best things they’ve ever done only confirms the album as a triumph.
Mums with push-chairs outside Sainsbury’s, tears in their eyes
They’ll never buy a Gibb Brothers record again
Their old 45s gathering dust
With the birthday cards they couldn’t face throwing away
Teenage winter coming down, teenage winter coming down
Cracknell’s angel of suburbia routine has always been its best when wedded to a lyric that hits home emotionally, and “Teenage Winter,” aside from its heart-wrenching chorus, has spoken-word, observational narrative verses worthy of Jarvis Cocker, indeed, it sounds like one of Pulp’s classic monologues, and when the weeping violins that link the last two choruses come in, you’d have to go back a long way to find anything else in their back catalogue as potently affecting.

That’d be a fitting way of closing an album, even a career—but the epilogue “Goodnight” closes the album on an almost hymnic tone, an a cappella with just Sarah and the aforementioned harmonies. It’s actually quite a bit more optimistic than it sounds at first, and loops nicely back into “Sun In My Morning”—days rolling into each other like the lives of the songs’ protagonists—if you play the album on repeat, which will be awfully hard to resist doing.

If you’re unconvinced, listen to the way Sarah Cracknell sings on “Lightning Strikes Twice”—infusing the key lines with a combination of defeat and determination: "Everyone should have a reason to believe / So I still believe that lightning could strike twice for me.” She sounds like Kylie's more aloof older sister, but using a tone that only a woman who knows her band has released their best album in a decade could get away with.

Eleven years after the still-astonishing Tiger Bay, Saint Etienne have created an endlessly enjoyable sophisticated pop album, and the only point to mourn is that there are far fewer receptive listeners around to hear it this time.

Buy it at Insound!

Reviewed by: Edward Oculicz
Reviewed on: 2005-06-29
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