Saint Etienne, “Tales From Turnpike House”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #83 – released June 13, 2005)

Track listing: Sun In My Morning / Milk Bottle Symphony / Lightning Strikes Twice / Slow Down At The Castle / A Good Thing / Side Streets / Last Orders For Gary Stead / Stars Above Us / Relocate / The Birdman of EC1 / Teenage Winter / Goodnight

To paraphrase a classic title of one by Rod Stewart, every album tells a story: it could revolve around hastily assembled contractual obligation or inspired artistic reinvention, announce a new talent to the world or remind a long-uninterested audience what that talent is still capable of. Occasionally, it can even tell a literal story—a concept album, if you will. I’ve written about a few on this blog, from a concise suite about sexual infatuation to a conflation of the cycle of life with the four seasons. Some are predominantly defined by structure or sequencing; there’s also a number that forgo linear narratives for sustained themes such as childhood and parenting, impending mortality or a failed love affair (perhaps the most popular album concept of all.)

None of the three discs I’ve previously covered by British pop trio Saint Etienne were strict concept albums, but they each told at the very least figurative stories. So Tough (1993) served as a collage of early ’90s London sights and sounds, Tiger Bay (1994) combined electronic dance and acoustic folk into a shimmering whole and Good Humor (1998) recreated the 1970s AM radio gold its members Bob Stanley, Pete Wiggs and Sarah Cracknell grew up with. Their subsequent albums would also hinge upon a common aesthetic or theme: Sound of Water (2000) mostly eschewed the band’s typical pop hooks for atmosphere and texture, while Finisterre (2002) set out to capture London at the crossroads of a new century, linking together a dozen aurally disparate tracks with Michael Jayston’s authoritative spoken word narration. Neither album was necessarily subpar, but something about them felt less immediate and a little tentative, as if in a quest to continually explore new avenues, the band lost some of the luster that those three prior albums emanated effortlessly.

Fortunately, their next record, Tales From Turnpike House pushes their sound to new heights, but with none of that hesitation—it’s assured and complete as anything they’ve ever done. Not coincidentally, it’s their first album to sport an overarching narrative: a day in the life of various residents of a London tower block (for non-Brits, roughly, a high-rise apartment building.) It’s such an ideal concept for this particular band, whose back catalog’s not only undeniably London-centric but also steeped in humanism with a rare ability to find exceptional beauty in day-to-day life. Building upon such a strong, likeminded focal point brings out the best in them as lyricists.

However, Tales is even more special for the distinct backing vocals and harmonies on nearly all of the album’s songs, which were arranged and performed by Tony Rivers and his son, Anthony. It’s typical Saint Etienne for their members to reach out to a relatively obscure and forgotten-by-the-public-at-large figure like Rivers, a former member of late ’60s sunshine pop group Harmony Grass and a ’70s and ’80s session background vocalist. And yet, the familial, choirboy harmonies by him and his son are arguably the album’s secret weapon. On first listen, they seem more than a little retro and heavily reminiscent of The Beach Boys (a fitting touchstone, since St. Et. swiped the titles So Tough and Good Humor from them.) Over the course of an album, they become a wordless Greek chorus, musically binding everything together, their omnipresence gradually more resonant and profound.

“Sun In My Morning” opens Tales with a quiet but insistent ting-ting-ting percussive sound—possibly a triangle or a chime. Here, it acts as sort of an alarm clock, only softer and kinder (this is a decidedly slow, sweet wake-up call.) Over an acoustic guitar, Cracknell’s inimitable vocal follows, elongating words and phrases to their breaking point: “Made… a list of things to do… today / what a shame… the morning breeze just blew… it all away.” Then, just over thirty seconds in, the song’s title announces the chorus. On that chord change, everything brilliantly comes alive: some soulful organ, a skittering flute, and most prominently, the Rivers’ intricate, overlapping harmonies.

Having had ample time to wipe the sleep from our eyes, “Milk Bottle Symphony” vaults forward, upping the tempo and introducing us to various Turnpike House residents—among them, “Number twelve, there’s Amy Chan / Writing down a line for the candy man,” and “Emily Roe’s at Thirty-One / Twenty minutes left to get her homework done.” Gifted as the band is at pinpointing such minute details (Emily “leaves her cornflakes on the sofa / says goodbye to mum”), they also excel at painting a bigger picture: note the dramatic pause at mid-song, silence ceased by a sweet clang-clang-clang that could be a literal interpretation of the song’s title, or how effective the staccato string section sounds over the track’s driving electronic beat on the instrumental coda.

“Lightning Strikes Twice” is the first of many Tales tracks where Saint Etienne reclaim their status as purveyors of alternate-world number-one hits. Resembling a more earnest, if no less slinky version of synth-pop duo Goldfrapp, the song kicks off with Cracknell in her lowest register, modulating her vocal up a few notches with each line until it reaches the euphoric chorus of “Everyone should have a reason to believe / so I still believe that / lightning will strike twice for me,” dramatically stretching out that first word to “Evvv – ryyyy – one.” An irresistible paean to sustained optimism as a life-force, “Lightning Strikes Twice” goes out on a limitless high, reprising the song’s key-changing middle-eight with the Rivers’ harmonies guiding all into the stratosphere.

The contrast between it and “Slow Down At The Castle” could not be more striking: after a mournful folk guitar intro, it shifts into a minor-key suburban gothic that’s almost a warmer, kinder cousin to So Tough’s similarly-toned epic “Avenue”. Its childlike melody gels splendidly with Cracknell’s phrasing but its complexity comes from a few rather baroque but well-employed touches: a harpsichord break, impossibly lovely backing “bong-bong-bong” Rivers harmonies, even a surprise Theremin solo! The piano melody on the outro mirrors the guitar intro almost identically, adding an exquisite grace note at the end.

“A Good Thing” brings Saint Etienne back to masterful dance pop mode with a vengeance. This album’s second single and a close cousin to their biggest UK hit “He’s On The Phone”, it dutifully sounds ultra-contemporary, downplaying the idiosyncrasies of Tales’ preceding songs (almost nary a Rivers to be heard here.) Happily, even at their most accessible, Bob, Pete and Sarah rarely settle for anonymity. As in many a St. Et. composition, Cracknell remains pragmatic but urgent, droll but serious in advising and furthermore reminding a former lover just what’s he lost. Still, what sounds gloomy on the page is transformed by the music’s continual uplift, so much that Pedro Almodovar, a fan, placed the song in his film Volver and it fit beautifully without receding into the background.

An endearingly fragile bossa-nova practically gliding by on vibes, bongos, spare electro-beats and a whole lot of “ba, ba, ba’s” from Cracknell and the Rivers, “Side Streets” was an unconventional choice for the album’s first single, if only for all the surefire big pop productions surrounding it. The lyrics, about a single woman on her daily commute are also far more complex than your average top 40 fluff. Cracknell sings of taking the long way home, acknowledging but not altogether fearful about dangers lurking within an urban center’s corners. She’s at once defiant (“I’ve got features I quite like and don’t mind keeping”) and matter-of-fact (“I’ll probably get it tomorrow”) but the warmth of the arrangement and her vocal (try not to melt at the way she pronounces the word “bubble”) tempers what in less nuanced hands could come off as merely chilling.

After a somewhat deceptive, slow piano intro, “Last Orders For Gary Stead” suddenly locks into a two-chord glam rock groove, complete with electric guitar, pounding piano and Cracknell sounding like the love child of David Bowie and Dusty Springfield. The first St. Et. Tune that absolutely swaggers, it should be an anomalous fit but it works, especially when it reaches its heavenly, Rivers-assisted multi-tracked chorus. Having briefly met the title figure back in “Milk Bottle Symphony”, Gary serves as a through line for the album’s overarching narrative. Here, he’s at his preferred environment of the local pub, and a figure of amusement to some (listen to how tartly Cracknell sings, “He just cools it down / they should knight him for it.”) Still, he’s potentially a tragic figure as well. “She’s in two minds, maybe she’ll board up her door,” the chorus explains, before resolving itself in a neat bit of wordplay: “He sinks two pints / and that’s how it goes.”

As the band’s dance anthems go, “Stars Above Us” not only bests “A Good Thing” but on some days might even top “He’s On The Phone”. “Stars above us, cars below us / Out on the rooftop, baby,” is its glorious chorus, riding high on a shamelessly disco groove (nearly nicked from Kylie Minogue’s “Love At First Sight”) and Niles Rodgers-like rhythm guitar. Musically, it’s far from their most forward-looking song, but none of that matters when the beat kicks in after that dreamy intro and the chorus comes on full force. “Stars Above Us” is positively transformative, taking one to the best place imaginable; in a nod to their greatest early single, Cracknell sings, “Nothing can touch us, baby,” and it’s awfully hard to disagree with her.

Amazingly, “Stars Above Us” was not a UK single, but Savoy Jazz, Saint Etienne’s then-US record label had the foresight to promote the song and a series of remixes—it became the band’s first top ten club play hit in over a decade. Unfortunately, the label ended up seriously botching Tales’ US release seven months after the original edition came out: not only did they rearrange the track listing, placing the two UK singles at the beginning and thus doing away with the day-in-the-life-of-a-tower-block chronology, they cut out the two tracks following “Stars Above Us” and inserted two new replacements (“Dream Lover”, “Oh My”) randomly into the album’s sequence.

Granted, the two nixed tracks are arguably Tales’ least essential. “Relocate”, a duet between Cracknell and David Essex (sounding far more weathered here than on his ‘70s hits like “Rock On”) reads like a distaff Brit take on the old Green Acres theme (wife wants to move to the country, husband wants to stay put in the city.) It’s charming (love the pointed, irritated way she asks him, “You call this life?”) and fits in with the overall concept, but it’s also slight, its merry-go-round melody a touch too music hall for these sophisticates. Meanwhile, “The Birdman of EC1”, the album’s sole instrumental, is a melancholy organ, mandolin and Mellotron-accented breath of fresh air and little else. However, Tales needs both songs for they provide necessary texture; without them (as on the US edition), the transition from “Stars Above Us” to the album’s two final crucial songs feels jarring and rushed.

Tales enters its most powerful stretch with the startling fanfare of harmonies and chiming notes that announces “Teenage Winter”, one of the most unabashedly heartbreaking songs in a catalog with no shortage of them. In its verses, Cracknell delivers a spoken word monologue, reuniting us with such figures as Gary Stead and other various building residents. If “Milk Bottle Symphony” depicted them with an air of promise and hope, now they’re more wistful, almost melancholic, really. Their world is continually in flux: a chain tanning salon replaces a mom-and-pop bakery, and the internet’s daunting presence lessens the nifty stock for record collectors scouring the local thrift shop. Each person is inevitably getting older, “holding on to something / without knowing / exactly what you’re looking for.” Over melodic triplet notes resembling softly falling snow, Cracknell sings in the chorus:

Teenage Winter’s coming down
Teenage Winter floats a gown
Over every place I’ve been
And every little dream
Forever.

That last word just hangs there, gorgeously resounding through the song’s lush guitar, organ and woodwind arrangement (which also includes a sneakily affecting melodic bassline.) “Teenage Winter” is an incredibly poignant lament, made even more so by the fact that Bob and Pete had just entered their 40s when they recorded it (with Sarah not too far off)—for the first time, one can detect a real sense of mortality in Saint Etienne’s world. Rather than rally at time’s arrow with nostalgia and self-pity, they confront it the kindness, wisdom and acceptance that only comes with age.

It seems inconceivable that anything could top “Teenage Winter”, but closing track “Goodnight” comes perilously close. A simple lullaby, it brings Tales full circle from “Sun In My Morning”. Stripping away all instrumentation, we’re left with Sarah, Tony and Anthony. Hearing just these voices at this point in the album’s sequence and the extraordinarily haunting sound they make together (like a delicate tapestry of onomatopoeia) is almost too much to bear. So is Sarah pleading, “Please sing me to sleep and stroke my hair / I’ll close my eyes and pretend that you’re there.” That little couplet really gets at what Tales as a whole is all about: one can always uncover specks of brilliance in everyday, ordinary things, but real transcendence often comes in dreams, in imagining possibilities and processing pain, and using this learned experience to move forward. These threads run deep through Saint Etienne’s entire oeuvre, but on Tales they push furthest, expressed so eloquently they’re impossible to miss or shake.

In a cruel twist of fate, Tales ended up the band’s worst selling album to date in the UK (as with what happened to Tiger Bay, the botched US version didn’t help matters much.) Perhaps “Stars Above Us” or even “Lightning Strikes Twice” should’ve been the lead single, or maybe, just maybe, Tales was so ambitiously out-of-time with what constituted a hit in 2005. One could argue that’s always been the case with this cult-adored trio; for me, Tales had a larger impact than anything else I heard that year (possibly that entire decade.) It was like I’d been wishing, hoping, waiting for one of my favorite bands to create their masterpiece (despite them already having put out at least three great albums.) And then, they did. What’s more, while Tales was originally to be their final appearance in 100 Albums, as of this writing, I’m confident that’s no longer the case.

Up next: We become Panoramic.

“Teenage Winter”:

“Stars Above Us”:

 

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