Saint Etienne, “Tiger Bay”

Tiger_Bay_original_album_cover

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #41 – released February 28, 1994)

Track listing: Urban Clearway / Former Lover / Hug My Soul / Like A Motorway / On The Shore / Marble Lions / Pale Movie / Cool Kids of Death / Western Wind – Tankerville / The Boy Scouts of America

“Urban Clearway”, the opening salvo of London trio Saint Etienne’s third album suggests that it will be a very different beast from the first two. Granted, Fox Base Alpha and So Tough had their share of atmospheric, pulsating electronic instrumentals, but they were hidden behind simpler pleasures like a dance cover of a Neil Young song or a neighborhood café narrative that unambiguously invited listeners into its world. Tiger Bay, on the other hand, introduces itself via a barrage of mechanical rhythms straight out of the Kraftwerk songbook (or Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”).

Then, at 1:16, it curves left as a cornucopia of real strings, woodwinds and harp glissandos all make nice on top of the synthesizers—the song’s heretofore monochrome world has just opened up considerably, now resembling a exuberant version of an imagined late ‘70s action/adventure TV theme (Charlie’s Angels? Hart To Hart?). Perhaps “Urban Clearway” is, at its core, opening credits music for this, the most cinematic of all Saint Etienne albums—it even shares its title with a 1959 Hayley Mills film. But then, the song curves left again, from major to minor key in the final minute. What kind of movie is this? Certainly not a fluffy comedy. Perhaps a kitchen sink drama? Maybe even an epic?

After the adrenaline rush of “Urban Clearway” comes its almost polar opposite: a hushed folk song. “Former Lover” begins with four strummed Spanish guitar chords, each of them slowly plucked so one can hear every single note they contain. Then, the guitar plays a rapid succession of five-note arpeggios over which we hear a sighing harmonica and pining vocalist Sarah Cracknell, who provides the melody via lyrics doled out in simple, Zen-like phrases (“Milan, when I was a kitten”, “Close all of the doors, Maisie”). The transition from the first track to the next nearly induces whiplash, but “Former Lover” is secretly the yang to the previous song’s yin.

Throughout their first three albums, Saint Etienne seemingly pride themselves on what startling juxtaposes they can come up with between (and often within) songs; a majority of Tiger Bay plays like proto folk-tronica, like an imagined collaboration between such disparate souls as Fairport Convention and Gary Numan. However, it’s still pop music and by itself, “Former Lover” is striking in both its somberness and melodicism and for the cozy melancholy it instantly conjures: curling up in a comfy chair, staring out a window, rain gently falling, its narrator delicately, arrestingly lost in thought and reverie.

Tiger Bay’s next two songs were also among its three singles. “Hug My Soul” sports even lusher orchestration than “Urban Clearway”, especially in its opening string fanfare. But Saint Etienne are still primarily an indie dance band (Wikipedia’s catch-all phrase for them) at this point in their career, and the song’s disco beat defines it. Faintly reminiscent of the old Andrea True Connection hit “More, More, More”, it pursues the same end (sex, natch) but via a kinder, gentler, but no less lustful means. By stretching out each world in the chorus almost to its breaking point (“I’ll… be… there…”) before getting to the song’s title, she makes her move but seems almost nonchalant about doing so, and thus all the more irresistible. It’s one of the album’s catchiest, classiest songs, but also atypical top 40 fare—for instance, what other ’94 pop hits featured a luxurious vibraphone solo?

“Like A Motorway” is somehow even catchier and further out there. Switching back from live strings to full-on electronica, its lengthy, instrumental intro positions it as a companion piece to “Urban Clearway”—that is, until Cracknell appears, sighing the song’s main hook (“He’s gone”) into an analog synth cavern. What follows is one of the more sublime and enigmatic songs in the band’s catalog. On the surface, it’s simply another vaguely Latin-accented tale of a former lover, a man who has just left a woman, but she’s not the singer. While Cracknell empathizes with her, she’s also observing from a distance. It all feels like an Antonioni film, with lengthy instrumental passages occasionally broken up by such musings as, “She said her life was like a motorway / dull gray and long, until he came along.” Whereas “Hug My Soul” looked ahead in anticipation, “Like A Motorway” stares in the opposite direction, pondering what has occurred, trying to cull meaning from the past.

A departure from previous Saint Etienne releases in that it less resembles a sample-heavy mix tape with bits and pieces of pop culture effluvia serving as the glue holding all of it together, Tiger Bay is more of an actual ten-track song album. Although it eschews samples (mostly for string arrangements), it has three instrumentals (possibly four, depending on whether you isolate “Tankerville” from the medley it forms with “Western Wind”), the second of which, “On The Shore” returns to the band’s original concept of using a series of guest vocalists. Shara Nelson (best known for Massive Attack’s “Unfinished Sympathy”) lends her soulful wail to a cod-reggae backing track that’s gently buoyed along by an insistent, two-note staccato filigree and occasional string and oboe interjections. Pretty and pleasant and not at all profound, it works well enough as a breath of fresh air between two far more serious tracks.

“Marble Lions” patiently lies in waiting on the other side. At first a return to the whispered elegance of “Former Lover”, it builds slowly, but from the onset is far more direct. Cracknell sings, “Everybody wants something and I want it all,” but not in a bratty way—more like in awe of the world and all its possibilities. “Stars are calling, goodnight, darling; don’t say goodbye” goes the gentle chorus; with it, Cracknell (who co-wrote the song with Michael Bund) appears to be praying for this special moment to endure for as long as it can. When the full orchestra appears after two minimally arranged verses of isolated electric guitar, flute and oboe, the effect is the same as in “Urban Clearway”, everything coming to life at once. Both antidotes to the existential despair of “Like A Motorway”, “On the Shore” and “Marble Lions” take comfort in the here and now: they are calm oases no matter how brief, as essential to life (or any narrative) as breathing.

The third of the album’s singles (but the first one to be released), “Pale Movie” is Tiger Bay’s most Euro-sounding track (band member Bob Stanley described as “a pastiche of a Spanish folk song”), and, with its florid orchestration, on-the-nose flamenco guitar and insistent disco beat, also its most dated song (although it actually pre-dated the whole Ricky Martin/Jennifer Lopez-led Latin pop craze by five years). However, Saint Etienne is one of those rare outfits that excel at being both frothy and cerebral. It’s not difficult to get swept away by the song’s many effusive charms, from the swirling, effervescent “la, la, la” chorus to purposely silly lyrics that name-drop American actress Demi Moore and Nepalese mountaineer Sherpa Tenzing.

If any single theme emerges from Tiger Bay’s diverse collection of sounds and tones, it’s the persistence of movement. Although the album title references a singular place (a Welsh port), its ten tracks form a travelogue of sorts, only more of the mind than any specific locale. It doesn’t matter exactly where the “Urban Clearway” runs or where the “Marble Lions” sit or even if “Tankerville” can be pinpointed on a map; there is even the nagging feeling that not all the album (or possibly any of it) is set in Tiger Bay itself. Instead, each song simply provides an outline for the listener to project his or her own ideas as to what the inhabited landscape is. For example, take “Cool Kids of Death”, a nearly six-minute long electro-dance instrumental. Its chief hooks are house piano chords, Cracknell’s occasional wordless backing vocals and a six-note melodica riff that’s almost a variation of the theme song to The Saint. As with any instrumental, there’s purposely no context apart from the title (and even that was originally meant to be “Cool Kiss of Death”). Still, the track’s relentless pace suggests more than just a placeholder—at best, one can imagine some sort of sustained action occurring; whether it involves the titular figures or not is left up to one’s own imagination.

At least three different versions of Tiger Bay exist. The one surveyed here is the original UK release; a few months later, an American edition (with the band photo on the cover) came out, but with an altered track listing: “Hug My Soul” and “Former Lover” swapped places (I actually prefer this sequencing, only because it works and, as an American, it was the first way I heard it) and “Western Wind/Tankerville” was completely obliterated and replaced with “I Was Born On Christmas Day”, an even frothier track than “Pale Movie” that was a stand-alone UK single the previous December. Rather inexplicably, the album was re-released in the UK in 1996 with an “amplified” track listing that added on four more songs, including “He’s On The Phone”, their highest charting UK hit (#11), first released in late ’95 to accompany the singles collection Too Young To Die.

I didn’t hear the original UK version until it was part of the band’s “deluxe edition” two-disc reissue series of their back catalog in 2009-2010. Previously, I considered Tiger Bay as one of Saint Etienne’s lesser albums; hearing it with “Western Wind/Tankerville” intact, the album suddenly, beautifully, fully resonated. A seven-minute, three-part suite, the track opens with “Former Lover”-like austerity, Cracknell singing what could be a trad-folk melody (“Western wind / when will thou blow?”) over mournful acoustic guitar—all nearly resembling something from The Wicker Man soundtrack. Around the one-minute mark, strings begin slowly fading in, along with a burbling electronic undercurrent. Thirty seconds later, you sense a heavy Serge Gainsbourg influence with the arrival of a full orchestra (complete with harp glissando) and a beat that anticipates trip-hop (a genre that will start deeply permeating 100 Albums in a few entries). This is the instrumental “Tankerville” portion of the song. Unhurriedly flowing like a glass-eyed stream but punctuated by dramatic orchestral flourishes, it continues until the last minute when “Western Wind” reappears, only in a slightly more foreboding key. What wasn’t exactly lighthearted at the beginning ends rather ominously with Cracknell and guest vocalist Stephen Duffy reprising the opening melody and lyrics as the trip-hop beat and orchestration quietly continue, only joined by a faint, siren-like noise.

When preceded by “I Was Born on Christmas Day”, “The Boy Scouts of America” makes precious little sense. However, with “Western Wind/Tankerville” as its lead in, it registers more clearly as part of Tiger Bay’s overall design. A lingering wisp of a song, it depicts a narrative about a boy who “has to keep guard” over a girl who “lies in bed” in a house in Paraguay. We never learn what he’s protecting her from, only that “God has derailed the Lonestar train / that could take her away from sadness and pain.” Cracknell relays the simplistic melody in her beguiling, childlike voice as the opulent, John Barry-esque orchestration seems less pop song than almost folk murder-ballad designed specifically for the stage or screen. At the final verse, she enigmatically concludes, “The Boy Scouts of America taught him all that he knows.” The strings linger a bit, and then fade out into the ether. The album closes as effectively and dramatically as it began.

Tiger Bay was such a departure for Saint Etienne that it likely baffled a lot of the band’s UK fans (the botched American release had nary an impact on their standing in the States.) Like So Tough, it entered the top ten, but plummeted rapidly down the charts. Perhaps in response to this public indifference (and also exhaustion from having recorded three albums in as many years), the band took a four-year sabbatical; we’ll catch up with them when they return with their fourth album—yet another departure, albeit a radically different one from So Tough to Tiger Bay.

Up next: A singular voice seeking no sentimental prisons, no political churches.

“Urban Clearway”:

 

“Former Lover”:

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