Saint Etienne, ‘Tales From Turnpike House’ (Savoy Jazz)
A poster on the online message board I Love Music once posited that Saint Etienne were England’s answer to Beastie Boys. The superficial similarities are there — both trios are culture junkies with massive record crates and music critics among their ranks. Yet there’s a deeper connection: The New York hip-hop crew and the London pop savants are pure products of their respective cities; check the Beasties’ 2005 anthem “Open Letter to NYC” and Etienne’s 2002 album, Finisterre, named for a shipping forecast they grew up listening to in England. After mid-career flirtations with other locales — the Beasties’ L.A.-based Check Your Head and Etienne’s Sweden-sweetened Good Humor — both returned home with restored native pride.
And Etienne still know their hometown. Tales From Turnpike House is a loose concept album about 24 hours in a London apartment complex, but unlike the Streets — who captured a day in the life of one geezer — Pete Wiggs, Bob Stanley, and satin-voiced frontwoman Sarah Cracknell pull together various miniatures to create a mosaic of the city. A would-be macho man gets infatuated with his neighbor on “Oh My,” as a mock amp-kicking guitar riff and gated drums evoke Rick Rubin’s early Beasties production. The veteran dairy middle manager of “Milk Bottle Symphony” is another hero in the series of aural mini-movies that Etienne have been making since 1993’s “Avenue”; the song comes complete with sound effects and changes in orchestration to guide us from scene to scene. Like much of Turnpike House, it’s so London-specific that it almost requires an England-to-English translation for us Yanks; for starters, Unigate is a milk company. But however localized their lyrics, Saint Etienne’s music is its own reference point. From the relaxed, expansive Eurodisco of “Stars Above Us” to the squelchy bass-driven “I’m Falling,” it needs no translation.
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