A Sudden Sway were, and apparently are again, a collective of pop conceptualists who, in 1988, released an album called ‘76 Kids Forever’. Styled as a ‘soap opera musical’, its narrative thread centred around the humdrum lives of a group of small-town 20-somethings desperate to run away to London. It was never performed, but was instead transmitted live over telephone chat lines.
A couple of years earlier, A Sudden Sway had presented ‘Home Is Heavenly Springs’. An installation by any other name, it was a mock show-house for the kind of semi-suburban dream home all upwardly mobile bright young things should aspire to. Dads smoked pipes and grinned like Mormons, wives were of the Stepford variety, children were cherubic and, soothed by muzak’s aural wallpaper, all was apple-piewholesome in their curiously 50s-looking picket-fence perfect world.
A similarly idyllic aesthetic pervades throughout these two very different concept albums, rooted as they are in a sense of place as well as a dewey-eyed nostalgia for old values and a lost or fading community spirit. While Ry Cooder curates a Latin-American elegy to a Los Angeles ghetto bulldozed away in the 50s to make space for a spanking new baseball stadium, Saint Etienne score a suite of pastoral urban melodramas concerning a day in the life of a high rise block in London’s east end.
Inspired by Don Normark’s evocative photographic history of the district first published in 1999, ‘Chavez Ravine’ is a gorgeously authentic collection that sways lazily in the sticky dustbowl heat as it fiestas in the joy of life rather than gnashing away at what’s gone. Cold-war paranoia allows for a fanciful sub-plot concerning aliens observing from U.F.O.s, as Cooder ushers forward a cast list of divas and musicians born and bred in the neighbourhood.
In contrast, Saint Etienne have an upwardly mobile Sarah Cracknell duetting fruitily with 70s heartthrob David Essex, whose stage school cock-er-knee comes on like David Bowie during his formative Anthony Newley years. With vocal arrangements by unsung Brit-Brian Wilson soft pop genius (and latterly Cliff Richard’s arranger) Tony Rivers and two tracks co-written with Girls Aloud producer Xenomania, the result is a twinkly, techno-lite and oh-so-knowing, allgrown-up-now ‘Mary, Mungo and Midge’. Jumble-sale-obsessed sleevenotes by Turner Prize-winning auteur Jeremy Dellar, prolongs melancholy reverie.
Coming so soon after ‘Songs For Mario’s Cafe’, the Saint Etienne compiled psycho-geographic sojourn through the Smoke’s network of long demolished greasy spoons, ‘Tales From Turnpike House’, like ‘Chavez Ravine’, are perfect little sense memory time capsules of landscapes both real and imaginary. Breathe deep on them, and live the dream.
Neil Cooper is an arts writer