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"Good Humor / Tales from Turnpike House [Deluxe Editions]"

Saint Etienne – Good Humor / Tales from Turnpike House [Deluxe Editions]
08 October 2010, 14:00 Written by Alex Wisgard

The Saint Etienne reissue campaign has been a godsend; while the band’s albums have remained fortuitously in print since their release, the earlier records sounded washed out, while the mid-period dabbles with straight-up electronics have been in need of a reappraisal, and the bonus tracks and sleevenotes have been nothing short of revelatory. These two reissues bring the series to a close with seemingly more of a whimper than a bang; while each previous set has coupled one true classic (ie: an early album) with a more recent offering, Good Humor and Tales from Turnpike House are more of the runts of the Saint Etienne litter – neither of which work too well as first stops to Saint Etienne fandom – but the hindsight provided by these remasters reveals only one more diamond in the rough.

Their first record after three-year hiatus, 1998′s Good Humor sees the band attempting to find their feet again in the post-Britpop musical climate in the most roundabout way possible – by turning in their most exotic-sounding album, recorded in Sweden with Cardigans producer Tore Johansson and a bevy of session musicians, and with a lyrical eye cast across the Atlantic. It’s a consistent listen, but that coherence isn’t as engaging as it thinks it is and, unlike the band’s previous three efforts, Good Humor lacks a proper stand-out; lead single ‘Sylvie’ comes close, filtering classic Abba-roque pop through pounding arms-aloft Italo-house, but its chorus (“Over and over and over and over agaaaaain…”) seems phoned-in, especially after some niftily complex verses. In fact, Sarah Cracknell just sounds plain bored as she’s singing, with her vocals coming across as indifferent all over the record – and not in a detached Jarvis way – while the band’s musical brain trust, Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs, are reduced to backroom boys, struggling to make their voices heard through the lounge-leaning inclinations of their producer, and sacrificing emotion for pure craft. ‘Postman’ stands out by virtue of its weird arrangement, as gossamer pianos fight for space with waves of piercing cymbalwork, and ‘Lose That Girl’ is one of the few things here to sound as cool as their earlier stuff, but the rest is unremarkable fluff, especially the Ride-quoting pseudo-Britpop jangle of ‘The Bad Photographer’ – no doubt a tribute to their then-new paymasters Creation Records. It simply sounds like a band trying to grow up too quickly.

In stark contrast, Tales from Turnpike House arguably remains the band’s most domestic-sounding LP, and an underrated classic. It’s one of their most versatile records – there are excursions into pure Kylie-in-hotpants pop (‘Stars Above Us’, produced by the fine folks at Xenomania), sumptuous Beach Boys harmonies and even a return to Good Humored lounge pop on the sumptuous ‘Side Streets’ – but somehow it never sounds like anyone but Saint Etienne. There’s only really one poor moment here, but it’s a true stinker; ‘Relocate’, an execrable duet with David Essex, not only rates as the worst thing on the album, but possibly as the most awful three minutes the band have ever recorded. A turgid two-chord vamp, Essex and Cracknell play the role of a couple, having an extremely unconvincing argument about the merits of moving out of London, with Essex adopting his best I’m-a-cockernee accent for the job. Sample lyric – Cracknell: “We can grow vegetables.” Essex: “Sounds like a load of balls!” Quite. Luckily, hot in its heels is ‘Teenage Winter’, a world-weary Cracknell monologue about the modernisation of all the things that make the suburbs special – flats built on football pitches, charity shops being phased out by Ebay, pub jukeboxes being replaced by “the Aussie bar staff playing the Red Hot Chili Peppers”. Coupled with some mournful harpsichord and swelling strings in the chorus, it’s archetypal Etienne, while its relatable sentiment – that quintessentially British nostalgia of “holding on to something and not knowing exactly what you’re waiting for” – could well be a veiled comment on their own place in a rapidly modernising music industry. Either way, it sits pretty as their most impressive song in a decade, and one of their all-time best.

As with the other reissues, the bonus discs are a mixed bag; two thirds of Good Humor‘s bonuses have already cropped up on the America-only b-sides compilation Fairfax High. However, these self-produced tracks, particularly the compelling Motown stomp of ‘Hit the Breaks’ and Kid Loco’s hypnotically downbeat remix of ’4:35 in the Morning’ are shorn of fussy, overthought arrangements and consequently work as a far more compelling listen than their parent album. Turnpike‘s extra disc is littered with interesting instrumental interludes which didn’t make the album proper (most notably, the cute ‘School Run’), and perky tracks from an unfinished childrens’ album Up the Wooden Hills; it suggests that Turnpike could have been a very different album indeed, but provides precious few highlights. The aching ‘Missing Persons Bureau’ sounds like a jazzed up ‘Hobart Paving’, and there are two gloriously austere slices of vintage St. Et synthpop – ‘Must Be More’ and ‘Another Cup of Coffee’ – the latter being, of all things, a Mike and the Mechanics cover. Still, while both discs have their moments, neither is overly essential to anyone but completists. However, they do make for a welcome bonus to two lovingly-packaged collections of damn fine British pop music. All the band needs to do now is get on with their next album.

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