Saint Etienne - Tales From Turnpike House (+ Up the Wooden Hills EP)
Saint Etienne spent the early 1990s crafting the sort of pop music for which any band should be eternally remembered. Think: their cover of Only Love Can Break Your Heart, a track which could almost define the term balearic, the seven-minute beauty of Avenue, or the classy disco of Hug My Soul. They had memorable tunes, a dancefloor cool and a gorgeous frontwoman in the shape of Sarah Cracknell, yet their record of commercial success in this period was patchy and, worse, despite still churning out albums, they've spent the last ten years back in virtual obscurity.
Perhaps the problem is Saint Etienne have always possessed a certain archness (if not the outright smugness that makes one want to slap, say, The Divine Comedy). They might make pop music, but they're not - and never were - The Spice Girls. (Thank God.) It's a trait which seems to have become stronger as their career progressed.
Thus Tales From Turnpike House, a concept album revolving around the inhabitants of a tower block, includes a number of "cute" moments which may initially irritate the listener. Milk Bottle Symphony has lyrics about old ladies making tea and kids rushing to complete their homework. Relocate features David Essex, and is the most self-consciously bizarre duet since Cerys Matthews teamed up with Space for The Ballad Of Tom Jones.
However, there is plenty here with lyrically more universal appeal. Lightning Strikes Twice, A Good Thing, and Stars Above Us stand out in this respect. These are also the most muscially upbeat tracks; the sort of shimmering, intelligent electro-pop Saint Etienne have always excelled at.
As well as light dance beats, the band throw 60s-styled exquisite harmonies (see particularly Goodnight) and delicate arrangements into the mix, to predictably pretty effect. Ultimately, though, it's hard not to be impressed by the band's ear for a tune. If this is meant to be about common people, Sarah Cracknell - bless her - couldn't sound common if she tried, making Tales From Turnpike House a sunny flipside to The Streets' A Grand Don't Come For Free.
Up The Wooden Hills is apparently a taster for a forthcoming children's album. You Can Count On Me (yes, Sarah counting) and Let's Build A Zoo ("Peter picked a penguin... Harry got a hairy hippo") would seem to back this up, although I'm not sure how Excitation fits with such a vision. Maybe it's a children's album "for adults"? Either way, it's all rather barmy in a Lemon Jelly sort of way (Bedfordshire even ventures into "chill" territory), and well worth making sure you pick up the limited edition for.