The sun-kissed vocals of Sarah Cracknell can best be described as dreamy whispers fluttering through buttercups. She has a playful, easygoing, teatime coziness. She’s like your older, wiser sister. You’ve got to love her (even if you question her outfits). On Saint Etienne’s seventh album, Tales From Turnpike House, she’s never been better as a vocalist. After 15 years together (Cracknell, Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley), this concept album may be Saint Etienne’s last. How sweet it is – it’s their best.
The album chronicles a day in the life of fictional residents of the actual Turnpike House (a London high-rise). All the emotions are played out like a 1960s kitchen sink drama – all early morning wistfulness and after-work defeat. You get into the heads of these complex everyman/woman characters. Sometimes to a disco beat! Kylie Minogue pop with Alan Sillitoe (Saturday Night, Sunday Morning) aspirations.
If the first song doesn’t win you over we have no use for you here on planet Earth. “Sun In The Morning” is Bacharach pretty with acoustic guitars accompanying Cracknell. But when the Beach Boy harmonies (courtesy of ’60s cult figure Tony Rivers) burst in with a single fluttery flute, the song takes a magical turn.
Most of Wiggs and Stanley’s arrangements here are classic Saint Etienne – fey and sweet with a splash of pixie-cut/bell-bottom retro.
“Last Orders For Gary Stead” is a different baby. There’s heavy drums and… gasp… guitars! It’s ballsy and takes their aesthetic closer to the cocky swagger territory of The Smiths.
“Stars Above Us” is one of the best songs Saint Etienne has ever done. This innocent disco pop is infectious and spirited. “Stars above us/ Cars below us,” Cracknell sings. “Out on the rooftop baby/ Nothing can touch us baby.” It’s also hellishly romantic (something that most new dance music has shamefully obliterated).
The crowning achievement is the five minute, 45-second epic “Teenage Winter.” Cracknell sings and talks for every person in the September of his or her years. She’s nostalgic and pop- culture geeky as she explores her feelings (and Vinyl record obsession). “Teenage winter coming down/ Teenage winter throws her gown/ Over every place I’ve been/ And every little dream/ Forever.”
The emotions are astonishingly accurate and the arrangement is grand yet simple, letting the words stand strong and tall. Melancholy visuals abound. “Mums with push-chairs outside of Sainsbury’s/ Tears in their eyes/ They’ll never buy a Gibb Brothers record again/ Their old 45s gather dust/ With the birthday cards they couldn’t face throwing away.” Pure pop bliss squared.
The limited import edition also includes a bonus CD of songs for children. Wiggs and Cracknell are parents now and can’t stand the music out there for kids. Up The Wooden Hills is a treat. It features six great songs about numbers, barnyards and building a zoo. “Bedfordshire” is one of their most beautiful instrumentals. A father coaxes his child that going to bed is fun. “Time to go up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire,” he says. It’s so utterly pretty. Licorice whip with no need of sherbet dip.
The Magic Numbers is two sets of siblings (Romeo Stodart and sister Michele and Angela Gannon and brother Sean). They have been compared often to The Mamas And The Papas (hopefully without the sexual tension). The critics have been rhapsodizing about this London-based hippy foursome’s rich three-part harmonies and sad romantic lyrics. In a recent interview Romeo stated, “I feel like we’ve made a real classic debut album.” He must be using the Jedi mind trick. Critics are loving it. The self-titled debut is being heralded as the album of 2005. I’m sorry it is way too generic and forgettable for such praise.
They remind me of Dublin’s cute but utterly awful Thrills carrying a sack of John Mayer bullshit rhymes on their chunky shoulders. The songs don’t really grab me and the arrangements never once surprise. It’s all so obvious. The similar but more showstopping Polyphonic Spree at least has a camp, tongue-in-cheek attitude. The Magic Numbers is much too precious for my taste.
Lead vocalist Romeo sings all countrified and drippy. On “The Mule” the boring “Blues Hammer” guitar riffs draw attention to the sad-sack drivel. “I’m a no-good, used-up, bruised-up, fucked-up boy/ Who gets beat up by just looking at you/ Oh, I’m a lonely soul.” On the last track “Hymn For Her,” Romeo sounds like Kermit The Frog’s wimpy nephew Robin as he annoyingly cries, “I’ve been hurt to choose the path/ That we all walk alone/ I’ve been hurt before/ But all the scars have rearranged.” Yuckaroos.