Review: Jack Foley
CONCEPT albums, by their very nature, can sometimes be testing
affairs given their penchant for change.
Saint Etienne's latest album, Tales From Turnpike House,
invites listeners to spend 24 hours inside a tower block, with
each of the 12 tracks representing a different story about the
lives of the people inside.
The tower block in question is based in Islington and is populated
by all manner of people, from couples who argue about the rigours
of city-life, to angst-ridden teenagers, hopeless dreamers and
some more onerous types.
It sounds quite strange, but is frequently quite wonderful, given
that it is wrapped around the lush vocals of lead singer, Sarah
Cracknell, and frequently includes plenty of sunshine harmonies
ripped straight out of Brian Wilson's songbook (they were influenced
by the artist's Smile concerts last summer).
Hence, while a track like Side Streets (a former single)
may be about the dangers that lurk in a nearby alleyway (ie, a
mugger), it couldn't sound much sweeter, thanks to its swaying
melodies and 'ba, ba, ba,' chorus.
Likewise, the bittersweet argument that takes place between Cracknell
and guest singer, David Essex, on Relocate.
It contains lyrics such as ''the grass may be greener, the air
may be cleaner, but I love the city, I know it's not pretty, but
at least there is life' (from Essex); before being counter-balanced
by Cracknell's telling reply, 'you call this life?'
It's a fun track that confronts some serious issues with its
own distinct sense of humour, and Essex's vocals sound terrific
against Cracknell's country-girl style sweetness.
The breezy dance track that is Stars Above Us is a beautifully
upbeat ode to escape that contains a vibe similar to Blood
on the Dancefloor, while the more rocky Last Orders for
Gary Stead is an altogether harsher affair, that concentrates
on the late-night antics of boozer and gamber, Gary Stead.
Elsewhere, the 'la, la, la, la'-laden Milk Bottle Symphony
is a lively slice of pop that cleverly introduces us to all
of the occupants courtesy of the local Unigate representative's
morning milk round.
While a distinctly Euro-pop sound surrounds the harmonies of
Teenage Winter, a telling observation on teenage anxiety,
that finds Cracknell talk-singing through the verses, like some
insightful Jackanory reader.
The final track, Goodnight, whispers you into a comfortable
feeling, safe in the knowledge that you have got to know the characters.
You may even feel like the new neighbour next door.
It says much for the success of Saint Etienne's concept that
you won't mind being re-acquainted with life in the tower block
time and time again.
Up The Wooden Hills EP
For those who can't get enough of Saint Etienne's new material,
I would urge you to buy the special edition CD with the Up
The Wooden Hills EP.
It's a collection of six bonus tracks that continue to impress
with their ingenuity and breezy style.
Of the highlights, the opening track, You Can Count On Me,
is a summery piece of light funk that features a clap-happy beat
and plenty of 'ba, ba, bas', leading up to the soothing 'you can
count on me' chorus.
It's rife with funky guitar riffs, tingling pianos and Cracknell's
vocals at their sultriest.
The vibrant, Tarantino-style guitar riffs of Excitation
raise the temperature in suitably impressive fashion (with yet
more Beach Boys sensibilities).
While David Essex crops up again on Bedfordshire, which
beautifully chronicles a father's attempts to get his young son
to bed, setting a soothing melody around the singer's soft words.
It's an excellent addition to an album that contains more than
its fair share of pleasant surprises.