Understated Classics #9: Tiger Bay by Saint Etienne
Tiger Bay is Saint Etienne’s third album and I think it is among their best. It was released in June 1994 on Heavenly records. I first owned a copy in 1998 when I picked it up while living in halls as an undergraduate. The reason for including this album in the understated classics series is the same as for Second Light by Dreadzone: it marries traditional forms to newer electronic music1. Second Light melds classical music and sea shanties to house and dub reggae to evoke the rolling hills and mystic caves of England. Tiger Bay grafts folk structures on to Balearic pop songs and electronic experiments in order to visit motorway verges, windswept seashores, and Mediterranean holidays. There is even a ghost story (Boy Scouts of America) for good measure.
The album opens sprightly with Urban Clearaway, an instrumental that evokes a drive out along the motorway into the countryside. A motorik beat underpins to give it that road trip vibe. String pads weave outwards as the track concludes making it into a pretty little journey of a song. You could describe it as “Neu! on the M25”, but that would hide just how cinematic and velvety the string arrangement is. If Kraftwerk and Neu! were good at showing us the aesthetics and the kinetics of the autobahn, Saint Etienne reproduce it together with the expectation and excitement of travelling to somewhere new.
Songs and singles, instrumentals and demos
The next track Former Lover is a wonderfully wistful song that plays out over a lush folksy acoustic guitar motif, which makes an obvious contrast to the next track Hug My Soul. Throughout the of the album there is a clear distinction between songs written by Bob Stanley and Ian Wiggs2, and those written by Sarah Cracknell and her collaborators3.
The first two singles off the album were Hug My Soul and Pale Movie. These are among two of the finest pop songs that Saint Etienne ever produced. It is a shame that Bob Stanley is a bit snooty about them in the liner notes of the recent reissue. In particular he did not like how Pale Movie was chosen as the first single over Like A Motorway. Like A Motorway is a fine song, with some cracking remixes4, and it may have been better at tempting to listeners to the album than a throwaway pop song. In some ways the band are a victim of their own considerable production skills as the demo of Pale Movie included in the reissue is more in keeping with the rest of Tiger Bay. At the same time it also manages to sound a bit like Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood by Santa Esmerelda. Dig out the soundtrack to Kill Bill vol. 1 to see what I mean.
On The Shore has some burbling synth and a superb windswept vocal from Shara Nelson. It also has perhaps the most annoying frog-like sound on a record before The Crazy Frog_5, a sort of mechanised ribbit that repeats throughout the track. I would dearly love to hear a version of this track without that noise. Perhaps there is a frog-free demo somewhere? Talking of demos, four are included with the reissue. These are _Western Wind, Hug My Soul, Pale Movie, and Urban Clearaway. It’s a nice selection from the album’s broad pallete of styles. Most of the demos are darker and more forceful. If this is also the case with early versions of On The Shore then its demo would be worth a listen even if the frog noise is still there.
The spooky suite
The last three tracks form a suite of superb spooky tunes. It starts with Cool Kids Of Death, a skanking instrumental that is quite sinister, particularly in the Underworld remix that features on Casino Classics. I like the repeated melodica figure, the dub bass, the snares, and the keyboard stabs throughout: pretty much all of it really. I like the fact that something this simple can get you up and moving and yet still fit into the overall tone of the album.
On the reissue, three tracks have been fused into one - the instrumental Tankerville, bookended by two versions of the folk song Western Wind. One version is sung by Sarah Cracknell and the other by guest vocalist Stephen Duffy. In between, Tankerville uses the same mixture of beats, guitar and strings that works so well throughout the rest of the album to create a soundcape. Judging by the fact that the demo of Western Wind is four minutes long and features some interesting Tankerville-esque sonics in the middle, it is likely that the whole ensemble originally came together like that. What I like is how right at the centre of it, as the strings and the synths burble away, you get completely lost in the mental pictures that the music creates. In this way, the instrumentals on Tiger Bay are like other music that I have covered before in these posts.
Finally, we reach Boy Scouts Of America. I said earlier that it was a ghost story. I am not totally sure that this is true but it is indeed spooky. It is one of those wonderfully open-ended story-songs that in three verses and twenty-four lines manages to tell a story that would take a film much longer to navigate. From the opening line (“Like a birthday card from a previous year”) to the last (“The Boy Scouts of America taught him all that he knows”), the characters are amorphous and their roles are uncertain. Why is the man guarding the woman? Why does she hug the sheets? What is the hidden heartache that causes the man’s veil of coolness to slip? There are so many questions and yet the song just shifts into focus and out again without overstaying its welcome. After just three minutes the strings fade into the noises of passing trains.
Beyond Tiger Bay
Saint Etienne are among my favourite bands. I think the blend of great pop songs, great stories and great arrangements lead me back to them time and time again. Whether it is the crazy nonlinear stories inside of nine-minute dance tracks like How We Used To Live (from Sound Of Water) or the wonderful slice-of-life duet Relocate (from Tales From Turnpike House), there is always plenty to enjoy. However, when it comes to a whole album experience, whether by Saint Etienne or by anyone else, you can’t beat Tiger Bay.
I use relative terms here, dance music is very new compared to the folk music that is referenced throughout Tiger Bay (and Second Light). However electronic music is not really new. It has infiltrated popular music for over thirty years, so why do I keep doing referring to it as new?! ↩