Saint Etienne is something like the musical equivalent of a Hugh Grant romantic comedy—sophisticated, extremely English, somewhat yuppified and materialistic, and with a predilection for prettiness that at times seems like a stronger driving force than substance. But at its best, it's the pinnacle of breezy pop. The band's seventh disc, Tales From Turnpike House, is one of its finest, deploying Sarah Cracknell's warmly personable singing and Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs' deft songwriting and production on a series of linked songs about a day in the life of the ordinary inhabitants of a posh London apartment building. (Released last year in Britain, Turnpike has been remodeled for its stateside release, with its track listing shuffled and three new songs recorded specifically for the U.S. disc.) Concept albums are always chancy, but Turnpike's arrangements are rich and often gorgeous, and the lyrics are filled with subtle mood shifts and telling observations on the daily grind for middle-class, mid-30ish Londoners with midlife crises.
In some ways, Turnpike hearkens back to the postwar British pop of smooth, even suburbanite warblers like Petula Clark and Georgie Fame. Stanley and Wiggs also unlock their inner Brian Wilson on the Beach Boys harmonies of "Side Streets" and "Sun In My Morning." The album's thematic climax, "Teenage Winter," seemingly a modern update of Ralph McTell's achingly sad "Streets Of London," checks in on the characters one last time and finds them full of disappointments and wistful nostalgia. While they aren't the lonely, destroyed people of McTell's song, they struggle with the ordinary anomie of everyday life—the wasted time, the disappearance of youth, the inevitable approach of death. The fact that the band pulls this song off without turning mawkish speaks to the quality of the songcraft on the whole disc. Turnpike is Saint Etienne's strongest record in years, and if the rumors that this may be its final record are true, it would be an excellent swan song.