This week sees the twentieth anniversary of the release of Saint Etienne‘s third full album Tiger Bay. After the experimental electronic pop of Foxbase Alpha (1990) and So Tough (1992) and before the all-out sixties-flavoured pop of Good Humor (1998), it occupies an odd place in their discography. It includes three enormous hit singles, in the shape of Hug My Soul, Like a Motorway, and Pale Movie, and yet it was released a year and a bit too early to include the vastly more memorable He’s on the Phone, and also skipped the brilliantly festive I Was Born on Christmas Day.
The album opens, curiously, with the instrumental Urban Clearway, which is a great, uplifting track, but still a slightly strange track to open an album. It is followed by the acoustic, folk-tinged Former Lover, which – perhaps a little late – introduces the vocals of Sarah Cracknell to this release. At this stage she was still really only a guest vocalist who happened to be on all the singles, so she doesn’t turn up all that often on this album as a whole. But despite her appearance, this track isn’t Saint Etienne at their best, sadly.
Hug My Soul, however, is. It seems strange in a way that they would wait until the third track to unleash this one. The third single from the album, it was only a relatively minor hit, but is about as perfect a pop song as anyone ever could hope to record.
It is followed by the brilliantly dark Like a Motorway, in its full – nearly six minute – glory. Three albums on they may have been, but it’s probably fair to say that Saint Etienne were still finding their “sound” at this time, and this track is a wonderful deviation from anything they have done before or after, with its dim and slightly dirty synth bass backing. This may be pop, but it’s not quite pop as you ever knew it before.
Closing side A is the largely instrumental On the Shore, which features a surprise guest wail or two from Shara Nelson, and a fun slightly acid bass sound, alongside a very laid back instrumental flute-led track. It’s a very odd departure from their normal sound, but it’s very enjoyable nonetheless.
Marble Lions is closer to the traditional sound of Saint Etienne, with evocative lyrics about London and a catchy pop chorus. The production – largely just a vocal with a flanged guitar or two – makes for a slightly strange track when it’s listened to out of context, but the ingredients are all there.
Then comes the last of the singles, the exceptional Pale Movie. It’s uplifting, slightly Spanish in style, and entirely brilliant. It also deserved much greater acclaim than the number 28 peak which it scraped to on the charts. It is followed by a lovely instrumental in the form of Cool Kids of Death.
On the original release, Tankerville and Western Wind were confusingly presented as three different tracks, whereas the new reissue combines them all into one seven minute piece, which seems rather more logical. At each end, the traditional folk song Western Wind is a lovely piece, with the soaring strings and experimental electronics of the middle Tankerville section in between. Perhaps an odd combination, but a good one.
Finally, The Boy Scouts of America closes the album, again with some adventurous production which somehow doesn’t quite work. Cracknell’s vocal is accompanied by a warping electronic backing, and then strings and other instruments turn up for a crescendo between each verse. It’s an odd song, and a particularly strange choice of closing track, but it’s still fun.
Despite being released in the midst of a slew of exceptional singles, Tiger Bay still feels very much like a band trying to find its sound. Saint Etienne‘s experimental side is good, but somehow it just doesn’t feel like what they’re supposed to be doing. They also seem to have got the tracks in the wrong order, as the various international releases with entirely different tracks seemed to illustrate. But after four years of side projects, their comeback with Good Humor would entirely redress the balance.
The special edition reissue of Tiger Bay is still available second hand or as a download.