Saint Etienne have a back catalogue containing many lovely things, and Tales from Turnpike House (2005) is possibly the loveliest of all of them. That’s a bold claim, but let’s look at the facts. This is one of their less-known, and most understated albums. None of the two or three singles which snuck out were particularly successful. It’s got all the trademark Saint Etienne songwriting and production, but it’s also a concept album, cheerily telling the story of a block of flats somewhere in East London.
It opens with Sun in My Morning, an acoustic piece with twinkly percussion and gospel vocal accompaniment, which really can only be described as “lovely”. Things change a little with the more electronic Milk Bottle Symphony, a song about a street full of people waking up, one by one. Sheer poetry.
The pace quickens again with the Xenomania-produced Lightning Strikes Twice, an exceptional pop song which captures the very best of both the group and their producers. Then the pace slows, appropriately, with the introduction to Slow Down at the Castle, although it does pick up again shortly after. This is the Saint Etienne you can’t help but love. Even if you don’t really know London, the evocative lyrics with Sarah Cracknell‘s crisp vocals somehow bring it to life. The harpsichord part towards the end is absolutely sublime.
Then comes the brilliant single A Good Thing, followed by lead single Side Streets, both of which are exceptional in their own way. There’s really very little to fault in the entire first half of this album, and you can’t help but feel it’s a real shame that these weren’t enormous hits, as Cracknell sings glowingly about trying to avoid being beaten up in Side Streets.
Somewhat out of place is the more rock-inspired Last Orders for Gary Stead, with its big guitars. It doesn’t really stand out alongside its neighbours, and neighbours are just what this album is about.
The last of the singles Stars Above Us brings things back to where they belong, with a traditional Saint Etienne pop song and the second of the two Xenomania productions – brilliant, fun, and quite captivating too. It’s Relocate, though, with a surprise guest vocal from David Essex of all people, which really grabs you, with its idealised story of moving out to the countryside.
After the sweet instrumental The Birdman of EC1 comes the penultimate track Teenage Winter, which is easily one of the best songs on this superlative release. It’s largely a spoken word piece, but with a fun narrative and a great chorus. And closing track Goodnight brings the album to a close perfectly, like the lullaby you need after a day amongst the inhabitants of Turnpike House.
If you can’t find the original release of Tales from Turnpike House with bonus disc Up the Wooden Hills, and the recent double disc reissue is eluding you, the original version is still very much worth hearing.