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Saint Etienne - Takes From Turnpike House and Up The Wooden Hills EP


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.

 

Track listing:
Disc: 1
1. Sun In My Morning
2. Milk Bottle Symphony
3. Lightning Strikes Twice
4. Slow Down At The Castle
5. A Good Thing
6. Side Streets
7. Last Orders For Gary Stead
8. Stars Above Us
9. Relocate
10. Bird Man of EC1
11. Teenage Winter
12. Goodnight

Disc: 2
1. You Can Count ON Me
2. Barnyard Brou Ha Ha
3. Lets Build A Zoo
4. Excitation
5. Bedfordshire
6. Night Owl

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