SAINT ETIENNE So Tough (Heavenly)
To compensate for Saint Etiennes lacklustre new album bemoaned about elsewhere, these are mid-priced reissues of their first two albums, and for my money two of the greatest albums of the decade. Before metamorphosing into a reincarnation of just about every plodding 60s girl/beat group you probably never wanted to hear anything from ever again, Pete Wiggs, Bob Stanley and Sarah Cracknell were arch pop ironists of the first order, with a range and breadth of vision that remains astonishing five or more years later.
Like the Aphex Twins "Selected Ambient Works 85-92" album, another recent vinyl reappearance that I reviewed a few issues back, I have to confess personal bias towards "Foxbase Alpha", because its another album that all my friends at university cherished (says he sounding like a misty-eyed nostalgia-ridden old codger!). However, hearing it again only reinforces everything thats so brilliantly right about it: the Balearic-folk crossover cover version of Neil Youngs "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" still astonishes me, as well as having, like most St Et material, production values to die for, and moments such as when the sample of the Four Tops "Im In A Different World" creeps into "Shes The One", or the arrival of the crashing crescendo to "Like The Swallow" still send shivers down the spine.
"Foxbase Alpha" is a true multimedia event too: amidst the uniformly brilliant songs are myriad film and television samples, including, rather bizarrely, "Countdown", "Its A Knockout" and French radio coverage of a Saint Etienne football match; the inner sleeve is plastered with cigarette card-style pictures of 60s icons such as The Monkees and Tuesday Weld, and the back cover features sleevenotes by the noted pop commentator Jon Savage. In sum, "Foxbase Alpha" is a staggeringly accomplished and precocious debut...
...which pales only in comparison with their second album, "So Tough", released early in 1993. This time round the Saint Etienne concept of cuddly kitsch had been worked up into a "Sgt. Pepper"-style fifteen-track song cycle of Abba melodies, "Pet Sounds" production obsessiveness and window-rattling basslines, al knitted together with film samples and exquisitely detailed lyrical observations. To pick favourites would render disservice to the perfection of the whole, but if pushed Id value the beautiful piano ballad "Hobart Paving" above the rest, with honourable mentions for the eight-minute Wilsonesque soap opera "Avenue", the fluffy techno of "Junk The Morgue" and the "Spirit Of Radio"-sampling "Conchita Martinez". "So Tough" is a wonderful, wonderful album that nobody, least of all Saint Etienne themselves, has had the audacity to attempt to better, or even copy. Go seek: your ears will love you for it.
SAINT ETIENNE You Need A Mess Of Help To Stand Alone (Heavenly)
In my opinion everything Saint Etienne do is touched by greatness, a view not shared by those who can't stomach their kitsch ways, so this mid-price tidying up operation, which contains selected non-album tracks, was eagerly awaited by me. Despite the fact that these are mainly B-sides there's still more than enough to justify purchase if you're a fan: "Archway People" is both gorgeous and mysterious, the cover of The Field Mice's "Kiss And Make Up" shows the common stylistic thread to both bands, and the A-sides "Join Our Club", "People Get Real" and "Who Do You Think You Are" especially, are as other-worldly as their record label's name would suggest. The rest isn't quite so A1, stuff like "Speedwell" and "Duke Duvet" veers towards the aimless and pointless, but there's more than enough to keep the starving Etienne fan happy until their next proper album is released, allegedly early in '94.
SAINT ETIENNE Tiger Bay (Heavenly)
Arrrrrggghh!! (The spellchecker's going to love that...). Etienne, what have they done to you?? Where has the cultural crash collision that made "Foxbase Alpha" and "So Tough" such essential listening experiences, where stunningly eclectic whacked-out samples sneaked up next to Balearic covers of Neil Young songs and high energy disco beats, gone? (Say what you like about the ethics of sampling, but any technology that lets "Spirit Of Radio" and Hancock coexist on the same record is alright by me.) Wherever, it ain't here: what is on display, however, are pale and wan-looking half songs, insubstantial and uninteresting. In places it's almost good, such as the gentle "Marble Lions" (especially if you can ignore the glaringly obvious fact that it's nowt but a diluted version of last year's shimmering "Hobart Paving"), "Former Lover" and the alright-ish "Like A Motorway". But elsewhere, directionless instrumentals bore their way into traditional songs, pitifully thin material gets ineffectively propped up with lame Spanish touches, and nobody sounds in the least bit interested in the tatty edifice they're constructing. The Etienne dream of pure pop perfection has gone very sour indeed, unfortunately...come back Northern Picture Library, we need you now more than ever!
SAINT ETIENNE Too Young To Die Singles 1990-1995 (Heavenly)
With the Saint Etienne perfect pop machine (a finely tuned device up there with the Beatles, Abba and New Order in the three-minute marvel stakes) temporarily derailed in the name of solo projects (a Sarah Cracknell solo album? You jest, surely) "Too Young To Die" appears as a timely reminder (i.e. cash-in) of their genius. All the classics that youve (probably never) swooned to are here, from their Balearic cover of Neil Youngs "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" to the sleek glossiness of last years Etienne DAho collaboration "Hes On The Phone".
What this collection shows, surprisingly, is how frail and spindly some of their songs are when cut and pasted from their original surroundings: "Avenue", for example, fits perfectly amidst the extended tour-de-force that is the "So Tough" album, but here it looks more like an over-long indulgence to be endured before returning to the stuff you can actually waggle a limb to. Likewise the loveliness of "People Get Real" and "Pale Movie" appear as though theyre unable to spend too long out-of-doors without complaining of agoraphobia or sunstroke or summat. Nevertheless, at their frequent best Saint Etienne gave us genuine marvels like "Who Do You Think You Are" and "Hobart Paving", possibly the most eloquent song ever written that rhymes "two" with "loo".
What bolsters this already darn good package is the inclusion, with initial copies of the CD, of a disc of remixes, which, amidst the good (Secret Knowledges re-enactment of "Pale Movie") the bad (the Weatherall mix of "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" - go to jail, do not pass go, do not collect £200) and the ugly (the Aphex Twins brutal mauling of an innocent "Who Do You Think You Are") finds space for the divine in David Holmes "Like A Motorway" (a tune originally ripped off Joan Baezs "Silver Dagger", incidentally) which takes a perfectly pleasant and polite slice of ailing Etienne and hammers it into thirteen minutes of 303 frenzy, more acid than arch for once.
SAINT ETIENNE Good Humor (Creation)
Presenting Saint Etiennes long-delayed comeback album. In the four years since the release of their third long-player, the underwhelming "Tiger Bay", the faithful have had to make do with the singles compilation "Too Young To Die" (replete with one - count em! - new song in the form of the rather excellent "Hes On The Phone"), a slapped-together triple album of already widely available remixes ("Casino Classics") and Sarah Cracknells debut solo album, for which the phrase sunk without trace couldve been coined.
From the outside Saint Etienne appear to have gone through a drastic pruning process: the album cover is all uncluttered typography and solid, processed imaged of Bob & Pete & Sarah. Inside the sleevenotes are penned by this weeks author-with-his-finger-on-the-pulse-of-the-zeitgeist, the Canadian Douglas Coupland, and members of the popular fluffy Swedish combo The Cardigans can be found amongst the back-up crew. Heck, "Good Humor" is even overseen by their producer, Tore Johansson.
So the image seems to have been stripped and streamlined compared to the tiger token kitsch-a-thon of old, but what about the music? The back-to-basics approach showcased (if thats the right word) on "Good Humor" suggests that what the Et really wanted to be all along was a plodding mid-60s beat ensemble who hold no truck with all the samples, dance beats and devilish remixes that used to make Saint Etienne records so interesting. Listen to the singles "Sylvie" and "The Bad Photographer" and imagine the records made by the young Dusty Springfield...without the voice, the crack teams of songwriting talent behind her or the Spectoresque arrangements. What sinks "Good Humor" most is that its so inconsequential, a trait they demonstrated last time around but here made even more painfully obvious by the eschewing of anything that could make the result sound even tolerably modern. On one track, possibly "Postman", Ms Cracknell sings "Oh no" amongst over vacuous nonentities posing as lyrics, and it emphatically does not sound like the end of the world is nigh. Saint Etienne albums used to be packed choc-ful of dazzling tunes, witty film dialogue samples and cute lyrics (see elsewhere in this issue for further details); the 1998 model promises little but thin, grey gruel.
Not that I want to appear too harsh about "Good Humor": itll fill 45 minutes of your life with noddingly pleasant melodies and freeze-dried wry lyrics (references to Ford Capris, indeed!), and my copy came with a free 10" single of remixes that suggest that the threesome havent entirely turned their back on the dancefloor contingent. But if you like, love, adore Saint Etienne, as I do, "Good Humor" adds nothing to the legend created by those fabulous first two albums, and even on their new pitch its arguable that bands like Dubstar and The Cardigans are already making a better job of being what Saint Etienne seem to want to become. Sorry, but theyre (still, tragically) in a bad way.
SAINT ETIENNE Places To Visit (Bungalow)
More insipid muzak beamed forwards from Camp Etienne's immaculately preserved and freeze-dried shrine to 70s kitsch, "Places To Visit" was originally available only as an import CD before Bungalow picked up the rights to release this mini-album domestically. And what a favour they've done us, or at least those of us who can still vaguely remember how terrific the sample and song soundclashes of albums like "Foxbase Alpha" and "So Tough" were. Since those heady days in the early 90s each Saint Etienne long player has offered diminishing musical returns, to the point when, with this shabby article, we're left with seven tracks of mainly instrumental blancmange-blandness, with titles ("52 Pilot", "Garage For Gunther", "Half Timbered") that are far more interesting than the vapid ear candy they're shackled to. Even the production assistance of High Llama Sean O'Hagan on one track fails to ruffle the fluffy calm nothingness that pervades this thankfully short release. If there were any less substance to "Places To Visit" youd be listening to a blank tape. Avoid, and hope they regain some semblance of plot before their next proper album arrives sometime this year.
SAINT ETIENNE Sound Of Water (Mantra)
Saint Etienne in not-terrible album shock horror! After years of making dismal Europop, an activity that reached its nadir earlier this year with "Places To Visit", a mini-album so vacuous that it barely possesses enough energy to saunter from loudspeaker to eardrum, the once-mighty St Et have released something that thrums with the experimentation of old. Reinvigorated by collaborations with the likes of To Rococo Rot, High Llama Sean O'Hagan and Doves guitarist Jez Williams, "Sound Of Water" plays high quality electro-lite that burbles with undercurrents and suggestions of dub, jazz, soul and lounge, without ever lurching too far in any of those directions. And "Sound Of Water" even marks the return of samples, albeit used far more sparsely than in the heyday of future classics such as "Foxbase Alpha" and "So Tough".
Lyrically "Sound Of Water" seems to be one long covert love song to London, the joy of escaping from it to the country and the comfort on returning. A smattering of short but sweet instrumentals that top and tail the album, "Late Morning" and "The Place At Dawn", seem to underline the concept further. Then there's the epic "How We Used To Live", a suicidal single choice that clocks in at nine minutes and encompasses lush balladry, twinkling techno and experimental jazz all under one roof. Throughout the album real drums, acoustic bass and guitars, flutes and harpsichords flit through the synthesised fog, and although Saint Etienne's immaculately constructed façade never cracks even for a second, the overall impression is of a band questing once more, and having fun making music again. Its no classic, but "Sound Of Water" suggests that one day Saint Etienne might return to the gorgeous glory of their distant past, and for giving us that hope it's good enough.
SAINT ETIENNE Finisterre (Mantra)
Like every other Saint Etienne album of recent memory, "Finisterre" is being touted as a return to form, a resurrection of the glory days of "Foxbase Alpha" and "So Tough", and, like every other Saint Etienne album of recent memory, "Finisterre" is nothing of the sort. Their sole concession to meddling with the tired old album structure is actor Michael Jayston's enigmatic between-song narration - none of the vivid, cut-and-paste juxtaposition that made "Foxbase Alpha" and "So Tough", especially, cinema for the ears. The music is pretty much the same identikit sugar-coated fluffy electropop that Saint Etienne have been churning out for the last decade, throwing the odd borrowed diversion into even starker relief. "Action" leans heavily on The Beach Boys' "Do It Again" for inspiration, whilst the Numanesque synth that opens "New Thing" suggests another me-too attempt by old folks to prove they've been into electroclash all along. The album's least insipid moment is the closing title track: Sarah Cracknell's narration sounds unnervingly akin to something that could have spooled off the last Underworld album ("I believe in Donovan over Dylan/Love over cynicism"), and the music isn't far off that mark either. It ends with what sounds like an England World Cup Squad single being played in an echo chamber, strangely enough. But, such marginal innovation aside, "Finisterre" is just another frustratingly irrelevant Saint Etienne album, which, as with every other frustratingly irrelevant Saint Etienne album, is a sorry shame.
SAINT ETIENNE Tales From Turnpike House (Sanctuary)
Styled as a concept album following a day in the life of an East London neighbourhood, like every Saint Etienne album in too long a time Tales From Turnpike House promises little. Happily, though, it might just be the best thing theyve done since Tiger Bay, or maybe even the Swap Shop soundclash of So Tough. Such olden days nostalgia is heightened by the cheeky product placement of a Foxbase Alpha poster within the front cover illustration yes, from back when they really were good!
In a soundbite, the album is the Pet Shop Boys covering Pet Sounds or the Black Box Recorder youd happily invite to join your Neighbourhood Watch. Brian Wilson harmonies percolate through the pattering percussion, frolicking flute and acoustic guitars that populate Sun In My Morning. Milk Bottle Symphony, a gentle, burbling electro thing, might be the first pop song ever to namecheck Unigate. The ponderously dark and dreary Lightning Strikes Twice is a rare misstep, but theres something pleasantly Jeff Wayne-like about the wailing electric guitars way off in the distance behind A Good Thing. The gentle samba of Side Streets, hidden at the tail of side one, is the albums first bona fide classic in fact, possibly Saint Etiennes first bona fide classic in over a decade taking back the night in a small but significant gesture of defiance.
Last Orders For Gary Stead is heavy, both conceptually and musically; by Saint Etienne standards its dirty, grungy glam. The quirky, raggedy waltz Relocate heralds the slight return of an uncredited David Essex (continuing the War Of The Worlds theme!) who sounds somewhat bemused by lyrics such as Lets buy a pig or a hen, playing a cockney Sonny to Sarah Cracknells Cher. Teenage Winter is the albums shining moment, a monologue arguably about finding yourself, your friends and contemporaries shell-shocked and shipwrecked in your thirties, full of lovingly recreated everyday minutiae such as In the charity shop, Mrs Brown sits at the counter/Pricing down some old stock/The Moons A Balloon, two copies of Every Loser Wins/Noels Blobbyland, deluxe edition/Not much left on the doorstep recently/Something to do with eBay, Johnny reckons/Hes bidding on it now/For a Subbuteo catalogue, 81-82/Hell win it, put it in a drawer, and forget he ever bought it. And then the sad, sweet recognition of the poignant punchline: Holding on to something/And not knowing exactly what youre waiting for. They havent been this magical in years, but have they ever been so painfully incisive?
As with many Saint Etienne albums of recent vintage, theyve scored some celebrity sleevenotes for Tales From Turnpike House, Turner Prize-winning British artist Jeremy Deller sharing his reminiscences of scoring Moogs and Can albums at the jumble sales of his youth. Unlike many Saint Etienne albums of recent vintage, though, the sleevenotes arent the best thing about the package, which is surely worth a brief moment of quiet rejoicing.
SAINT ETIENNE The Ritz, Manchester 15 October 2009
With scheduled support act Go Kart Mozart (current project of Lawrence, he of Felt and Denim near-fame) absent, it’s left to the DJ to plug the yawning gap between the doors opening and showtime with gems from his best-before-1992 record box. After reeling through a seemingly endless stock of obscurities by the likes of The Real People and Chapterhouse, he hits something of a groove with a selection of tunes I would never dare to hope I’d ever hear through a PA, including Teenage Fanclub’s “Everything Flows”, Julian Cope’s “Beautiful Love” and – blimey! – The Field Mice’s “Missing The Moon”.
Suitably refreshed, around 9:15 the “Foxbase Alpha” album logo flickers above the stage and, to the pre-recorded strains of “This Is Radio Etienne”, we’re off on a trip through the band’s magnificent debut in its entirety. “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” is illuminated by psychedelic numerical animations that the giddy inner child in me recognises from “Sesame Street”. During “Wilson”, vocalist Sarah Cracknell illustrates the tune’s repeated “Would you like some sweets, Willy?” sample by showering the audience with what look like chocolate bars, whilst the video screens display a procession of famous Wilsons, including various Beach Boys, Anthony H, Jackie and Jocky. Originally powered by a Four Tops sample, “She’s The One” is now completely retrofitted out as a Motown stomper, and “Stoned To Say The Least” is peppered with even more “Countdown” samples. During “Etienne Gonna Die”, essentially a slice of gambling dialogue from the David Mamet film “House Of Games”, Sarah and co-vocalist Debsey sit at a stageside table playing cards, and “Dilworth’s Theme” is rendered far more lavishly than the original (which always sounded like it was recorded on a Dictaphone).
Main feature completed, they return with an absolutely exquisite “Hobart Paving” and Europoptastic takes on “Who Do You Think You Are” and “He’s On The Phone”. Flaws? Well, a couple of more forgettable later numbers confirm my theory that the band have never regained their early/mid-1990s peak, and Sarah’s vocals are sometimes overwhelmed by the electronic barrage. Otherwise, though, the evening adds a welcome visual and theatrical performance element to a brilliant album. Having patiently waited 16 years for an opportunity to see Saint Etienne, this was nothing like a disappointment.