Saint Etienne

Tales from Turnpike House

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Tales from Turnpike House Review

by Andy Kellman

No matter the associates or variables involved, a Saint Etienne album is always going to end up sounding just like a Saint Etienne album, even if it's a little different from what came before it. On Tales from Turnpike House, the group gets two productions from Xenomania (Girls Aloud, Sugababes), several vocal arrangements from Tony Rivers (the Castaways, Harmony Grass) and son, some songwriting and vocal contributions from the misunderstood David Essex ("Rock On," "Stardust"), and assorted things from faces old and new. The album comes out as their most organic since 1998's Good Humor; even the tracks driven by programming are warm in comparison to vast chunks of both Sound of Water and Finisterre. The concept -- a day in the life of fictional characters who live in a house that does indeed exist -- allows for a range of material that's as broad as what can be heard on any other Saint Etienne album. The glitzy dance-pop of "Stars Above Us" ("Stars above us, cars below us/Nothing can touch us, baby"), for example, precedes the ruminative "Teenage Winter," containing an all-too-sharp expression of the resisted shift away from adolescent fanaticism ("And in the charity shop...not much left on the doorstep recently/Something to do with eBay, Johnny reckons/He's bidding on it now, for a Subbuteo catalog '81-'82/He'll win it, put it in a drawer and forget he ever bought it"). Though the other dancefloor-ready songs -- the sleek, silken "A Good Thing" and the sweetly lacerating "Lightning Strikes Twice" -- have major presence, the gentler moments, thriving on easy-to-miss intricacies and enlivening vocal arrangements (the Rivers men are astute Beach Boys disciples), are especially generous with their charms. [The U.S. version, released on Savoy Jazz (this is not a joke), has a substantially different sequence and three tracks not present on the original U.K. issue. The best of the three is the B-side "I'm Falling," a David Essex collaboration that is gorgeously melancholy and not far off from an atmospheric version of Places to Visit's "We're in the City." Unfortunately, it does not contain Essex's vocal contribution, "Relocate." It's understandable that the label would want to add tracks to the album to differentiate it from a version that had been released months prior, but the resequencing and swapping out of tracks is a real head-scratcher.]

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