I’ve always considered Saint Etienne to be one of the great pop groups of the last two decades or so. Their earliest recordings found the trio of Bob Stanley, Pete Wiggs, and Sarah Cracknell taking rhythms and sequencer lines directly out of the clubs, throwing in a couple of odd experimental and spoken word bits, and imbuing the result with a warmth and humanity due in large part to Cracknell’s drop dead gorgeous vocals. The result was something bordering on magical — as magical as pure dance pop can be.
Listening to Saint Etienne made you believe, with every fiber of your being, that true love could be found on the dance floor, that all of the lonely souls out wandering the city until 3:00am seeking romance and community would eventually find both, and so much more.
As Saint Etienne chronicled not just the heady rush of the club, but also the morning after, and the neighborhoods, townhouses, and apartments in which the folks in their songs found themselves as their lives played out, you became convinced that London was one of the most magical places on Earth. A city full of hidden nooks and crannies, where adventure and wonder was just a few blocks over (a feeling that is captured by the essay in the album’s liner notes on the glory of neighborhood jumble sales).
And even moreso, they had you believing that your city — even a city as mundane as Lincoln, Nebraska — could be just as magical too. That is, if only you could find the same nooks and crannies, the same cul de sacs and neighborhoods. If you could, then even a town like Lincoln could be as swinging, as trendy, as jetset-esque as London. Until then, there was the magic of their music to inspire you, to keep you dreaming and reaching, comforting you until you could find the right club, the right neighborhood, the right person.
Tales from Turnpike House is the group’s eighth album, and while not as adventurous as their early albums nor nearly as dance-inflected or electronic, it still continues along the same pace. Ostensibly a concept album following the lives of a handful of people living in the same apartment building, this is Saint Etienne doing what they do best: writing breathless, effortless pop songs populated with stories of heartache and longing.
This is also one of their most organic albums to date. The drum programming and sequencers are still there but way in the background, placed behind acoustic and Spanish guitars, harpsichord, trilling flutes, strings, horns, and some of the band’s best vocal arrangements to date. Of course, Sarah Cracknell remains in the spotlight, and she should, seeing as how she possesses one of the most golden voices in music today. However, the breezy harmonies and backing vocals on “Side Streets” and “Sun in My Morning” sound as if they’re perfectly capable of bringing about winter’s thaw all by themselves.
One of the things that I’ve always loved about Saint Etienne’s music is their ability to weave the mundanity of everyday life into their exhilarating music, resulting in something much greater than the sum of its parts. “Milk Bottle Symphony” is one of the more upbeat tracks on the album, and yet the lyrics are full of real-life vignettes of normal individuals (“Number 9, Mrs. Doris Brown/Pulls on her quilted dressing gown/Shuts the fridge and boils the kettle/Wipes the table down”). By pairing the song’s machine-like sequencer pulses and artificial beats with such commonplace details, the music gains a warmth and depth it wouldn’t otherwise have. And the commonplace details, when paired with the music’s limitless bounce and energy, are elevated to something transcendental, making the song something far more than the sum of its parts.
As with every Saint Etienne album to date, there are places where the band stumbles big time. With their last album, 2002’s Finisterre, it was the hip-hop hybrid “Soft Like Me.” Here, it’s “Oh My,” which finds the band trying on an “edgy” sound complete with hard rock guitars and drumming. However, it just sounds rather silly when compared to the rest of the album, and even moreso when Cracknell tries to make her voice sound “nasty” and “bad” as she snarls through such laughable lyrics as “She wouldn’t get with Brad Pitt if you paid her/She’s more into James Spader.” It’s the sort of “bad girl” lyrics you’d expect from the likes of Avril Lavigne, not Saint Etienne.
Fortunately, that track is a total oddity, as the rest of the album succeeds brilliantly at a smoother, more effortless vibe. The aforementioned “Side Streets” is enough to make you want to hop in the car and search your hometown for those side streets of which Cracknell sings, the ones full of wonder and refuge, where the truly cool and fascinating people live. Meanwhile, “Sun in My Morning” makes you want to hop on the next flight to Ibiza — not to hit the clubs, mind you, but just so you can sit out there on the veranda and see a Mediterranean sunrise (with a cool drink in hand, of course).
The downbeat ballad “Dream Lover,” with its glassy guitar lines and soft Rhodes, is the sort of ode to heartache and longing that could’ve inspired Feist in the first place. “Stars Above Us” is more in the vein of “classic” Saint Etienne dance pop, with Cracknell’s voice cooing and beckoning over pounding club rhythms, sweeping synth lines, and funky guitar lines. It doesn’t break any mold, but when you’ve been around as long as Saint Etienne, and have labored for so long in a genre where you’ve achieved so much maturity and experience, sometimes you just don’t need to.
“Goodnight” closes the album a cappella, with Cracknell singing a final farewell against a choral backdrop that is somehow both odd and comforting, operatic and surprisingly intimate. It’s Saint Etienne at perhaps their most exposed, stripped of any semblance of pop music, and yet the fact that the song is no less affecting or engaging is just one more testament to their greatness — not just as a pop group, but as artists.