Whenever I come across a rare, perfect album or song that, out of the blue, takes my breath away, it thoroughly validates all the time I’ve spent seeking out, analyzing, obsessing over and just plain loving music.

I still think back to the day before Thanksgiving nearly eight years ago. I’d moved to Boston less than three months before and spent the chilly but clear afternoon walking all over the city, clicking snapshots with a disposable camera to show everyone back in Milwaukee what my brand new home looked like.

Browsing through Boomerang’s, an AIDS action resale shop that used to be located blocks away from the Fleet Center, I picked up three cassette tapes from the store’s many waist-deep cutout bins. One of them was So Tough (1993), the second album by Saint Etienne, a quirky British dance-pop trio who never had more than a cult following in the U.S. I’d read so many good things about the band and this album, but when I heard portions of it at a listening station in a used-CD store in a Milwaukee suburb two years before, I wasn’t exactly sold on it.

I’m not sure why it didn’t impress me then, because in Boston, as I popped the tape into my decrepit walkman and headed over towards the North End, I absolutely adored it from the very first song: “Mario’s Café”, an uplifting, intricately detailed sketch of breakfast at a London dirty spoon propelled by gliding strings, flute flourishes, and a sweet female vocalist sighing, “Everyone’s dreaming of all they have to live for." By the time I reached the most congested stretch of Hanover Street, the album’s soaring, eight-minute epic centerpiece, “Avenue”, filled my headphones and surged through my heart. I felt nothing less than ecstatic as the song kept building and building, the golden, late afternoon sun peaking over the Financial District skyline up ahead.

I’m not sure how much that particular setting had to do with my embracing the album; I’ll chalk it up hearing it in sequence rather than randomly, impatiently sampling it while standing in place. Anyway, that sensation of instantly falling in love with an album or a song was as potent as any high I’ve ever experienced—maybe even as much as falling in love with actual human being.

At the time I fell for So Tough, Saint Etienne (comprised of vocalist Sarah Cracknell and songwriters/instrumentalists Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs) were in the midst of a four-year sabbatical following their first three albums (which also included Foxbase Alpha (1991) and Tiger Bay (1994)). They returned the following year with Good Humor, a set that distilled the earlier albums’ stylistic shifts and wild genre juxtaposes into lounge-y, melancholy pop that wouldn’t have felt out of place on late ‘60s/early ‘70s AM radio. Then, they made a near-radical departure with Sound of Water (2000), exploring more experimental and ambient terrain. Good Humor didn’t grab me as instantly as So Tough did, but it eventually surpassed it, if not in scope and ambition, then in consistency and resonance. Sound of Water, on the other hand, still puzzles me—it’s a handful of great melodies somewhat obscured by oblique, cold production.

A leftovers compilation and a double disc career-spanning anthology (Interlude and Smash the System: Singles and More, both 2001) followed. Their next album, Finisterre (2002), was an odd one, right down to its cryptic title and cover art. A seemingly directionless mishmash of styles pilfered from the band’s back catalogue (with a few new diversions as well), strung together with in-joke spoken word samples, it was alternately delightful and bewildering. For the first time, it suggested not so much that they had run out of ideas, but that they weren’t entirely clear on what direction to take them in.

On Finisterre’s most immediate track, “Action”, Sarah sang, “Let’s get the feeling again” in that inimitable light coo of hers. Almost three years later (and an improbable fifteen years into her band’s discography), Tales From Turnpike House does just that. Released in the UK in June (no US release date exists as of yet), Saint Etienne’s seventh proper studio album already, remarkably has as strong of a pull on me as So Tough once did, if not stronger.

TFTH’s twelve songs chart one day in the life of the residents of a council flat in downtown London. “Sun in My Morning” opens the disc with a rhythmic, tinny tapping noise that could be a chime, a triangle, or even an especially sympathetic alarm clock, affably waking up its protagonist. Sarah’s vocal soon appears over this tapping and a lithe acoustic guitar. Her playful and admittedly thin but warm, engaging tone has always been Saint Etienne’s most distinctive element—to think Bob and Pete originally imagined their band would employ an ever-revolving queue of singers, a la Basement Jaxx! However, when she abruptly changes key leading into the chorus, she’s suddenly joined by some celestial male harmonies that seem to have wandered off a late-‘60s Beach Boys record. Belonging to Tony Rivers (a member of the ‘60s band the Castaways) and his son Anthony, they pop up all over the entire album and are as vital a thread to its character as the narrative concept. Instead of rendering TFTH a series of limp, Brian Wilson pastiches, their beauty and elasticity make the disc sound magnificently out-of-time, conjuring up a specific mood rather than an era.

With a pulsating, synthesized hum underneath and swooping orchestral flourishes on top, “Milk Bottle Symphony” fleetingly introduces us to various Turnpike House tenants much like “Mario’s Café” did for its patrons a dozen years before. But the album truly takes off with the next track, “Lightning Strikes Twice”. Employing those electroclash experiments first toyed with on Finisterre, only now for their fullest pop potential, it begins with Sarah singing in her lowest, sexiest register about using star charts and magic potions to get a lapsed lover back into her arms. With each line, her voice raises an octave, her moxie growing until it practically explodes in the exultant, dramatic chorus where she sings, “Everyone / should have a reason to believe / so I still believe that / lightning could strike twice for me.” The song is a probably a reminder to fans of the group’s early ‘90s output as to why they fell in love with the band in the first place: it exudes great big gobs of joy and blindingly bright optimism. Yet, it’s not a throwback, for it carries weight and a maturity that earlier work couldn’t touch.

“Lightning Strikes Twice” is one of three tracks that could be alternate-universe number one hits. The second, “A Good Thing” is the breeziest, tightest, most instantly accessible and Europop thing they’ve done since “He’s On the Phone” (the band’s highest-charting UK single from a decade ago). But for sheer impact alone, the third one, “Stars Above Us” even bests “He’s On the Phone”. Over a shamelessly disco groove and an insistent rhythm guitar like the kind you'd find off a classic Chic record, it celebrates temporary escape from the everyday world via a night dancing on the rooftop to some kick-ass tunes. It’s an incredibly simple song, consisting mostly of a chorus and a few melodically tossed-off verses added in deliberately to flesh it out (one of them even practically apes part of Kylie Minogue’s “Love at First Sight”). Ah, but none of that matters when the beat first appears after the dreamy intro and the chorus comes on full-force seconds later: “Stars Above Us” is positively transformative, taking you to the best place imaginable. Nobody cares if you dance like an idiot or can’t wipe that silly grin off your face.

In between those three snappy, upbeat gems are a few mid-tempo songs that further delve into uncharted territories for the band. “Slow Down At the Castle” is a gothic urban fairy tale that temporarily shifts the focus away from the council flat. Like one of ABBA’s later, more sophisticated downers, it’s vivacious yet tinged with longing and regret, signing off with an exquisite harpsichord and Theremin-suffused coda. Even better is “Side Streets”, an endearingly fragile bossa-nova with Sarah painting a loving, admirably complex portrait of a single woman on her daily commute. She throws caution to the wind as she takes the long way home, acknowledging but not overly concerned about dangers lurking within an urban center’s corners. The way Sarah delectably renders “bubble” here as almost two separate words makes me melt.

“Last Orders For Gary Stead” is probably the disc’s boldest departure. It’s possibly the first Saint Etienne song that absolutely swaggers, with Sarah vamping along detachedly to upfront glam-rock guitar chords as if Dusty Springfield and David Bowie had an androgynous love child. On paper, it sounds like an anomalous mixture, but it works, especially when it reaches its heavenly multi-tracked chorus. Less successful is “Relocate”, a charming if slight duet between Sarah and special guest star David Essex (who naturally sounds way more weathered than when he crooned “Rock On” thirty years ago). Sort of a distaff gloss on the theme song to Green Acres (wife wants to move to the country, husband wants to stay put), it fits in with the album’s concept, but strikes a tone a tad too music hall that the rest of the album shies away from.

“Relocate” is also only one of two tracks lacking the Rivers’ harmonies. The other is “The Birdman of EC1”, a church-organ and mandolin instrumental. Every Saint Etienne LP save for Good Humor has at least one ambient-leaning vocal-less track, and I used to always tend to skip over ‘em. Having listened to a lot of Brian Eno in the last year, I appreciate them more now. Like most instrumentals, it’s included here chiefly for texture. Without it, the transition between “Relocate” and the album’s penultimate song would seem too jarring and rushed.

Those harmonies captivatingly reappear at the start of “Teenage Winter”: this is where TFTH begins its final, most powerful stretch. The band's back catalogue has its share of unabashedly poignant, heartbreaking moments (“Hobart Paving”, “Former Lover”, “Marble Lions”), but this song absolutely outshines them all. The verses feature Sarah delivering a spoken word monologue that reunites the listener with some of the residents first mentioned in “Milk Bottle Symphony”. But that song’s wistfulness has been overtaken by an altered world, one where a chain tanning salon has replaced a neighborhood bakery and E-Bay’s daunting presence lessens the nifty stock record collectors once easily found in thrift shops. The characters depicted within are inexorably getting older: they’re often “holding on to something / and not knowing / exactly what (they’re) waiting for.” In the swelling chorus, Sarah tenderly sings:

Teenage Winter’s coming down
Teenage Winter floats a gown
over every place I’ve been
and every little dream

That “forever” leaves her mouth legato and disembodied, just hanging there, enduringly resounding through the song’s lush, guitar, organ and woodwinds arrangement. “Teenage Winter” hits awfully close to home for the band members (both pushing-forty, Bob and Pete are avowed music geeks) and probably for many of their fans as well. It’s ineffably sad, but not necessarily depressing—it sparkles and glitters like gently falling snow, not rallying at the world in self-pity or nostalgia, but with the kindness, wisdom and acceptance that only comes with age.

It seems inconceivable that anything could ever top “Teenage Winter”, but the album’s final track comes perilously close. “Goodnight” strips away all instrumentation, leaving us with just Sarah, Tony, and Anthony. At this point in the album’s sequence, hearing only these three voices and the extraordinary, haunting sound they create together is almost too much emotionally to bear. “Goodnight” is a pure, simple lullaby that brings TFTH full circle from “Sun in My Morning.” In it, Sarah pleads, “Please sing me to sleep and stroke my hair / I’ll close my eyes and pretend that you’re there.” This little couplet speaks volumes as to what TFTH’s all about: while you can always find little specks of brilliance in ordinary things, transcendence often comes in dreams, in imagining possibilities, in processing pain and using the experience gleaned to help yourself face future endeavors. These threads run deep through the bulk of Saint Etienne’s oeuvre, but here they’re so skillfully executed and eloquently expressed that they’re hard to miss or misunderstand—and also impossible to shake.
(Click here to listen to sound clips from this album)