Let’s start by summarizing Proust: some French bloke eats a biscuit and is
transported in time, not much else happens. Now let’s try applying the same
critical rigor to Tales from Turnpike House by Saint Etienne: reviewer hears
record, is transported in time, not much else happens. That’s where the
similarity begins and ends with the English band’s seventh album, an altogether
less lofty and enduring work.
Emerging from the British club scene of the late ‘80s-early ‘90s with a
refreshingly retro brand of pop/dance crossover, Saint Etienne has struggled to
maintain its relevance in recent years, with rafts of other more contemporary
bands such as Turin Brakes sailing the same waters.
After an early 21st century hiatus, the band returns with that horror of
horrors: a concept album. Unfortunately the concept, a set of stories based
around a day in the life of the inhabitants of an imaginary apartment block,
isn’t exactly gripping, and the result is a distinctly banal “kitchen sink
drama” ennui. In a sense, that’s the record’s main failing: a certain politeness
and lack of passion that despite – or perhaps because of – the perfect pop
production and performance, refuses to engage.
The rare moments where the record sparkles occur where the songs break free of
the mid-tempo rhythms and head for the disco in the Pet Shop Boys redolent “A
Good Thing” and “Lightning Strikes Twice”, or ditch the limping couplets for the
smoother feel of “Dream Lover,” which recalls another ’80s band, Prefab Sprout.
While this set will undoubtedly appeal to the Anglophile, its glimpses of
English life are the equivalent of PBS Brit drama “All Creatures Great and
Small,” when arguably the less reverent “League of Gentlemen” is more accurate