Saint Etienne - A Re-appraisal

A comprehensive, loving look back at the albums of Saint Etienne

Saint Etienne - A Re-appraisal

A comprehensive, loving look back at the albums of Saint Etienne

 

When you think of Saint Etienne, many things come to mind, Sarah Cracknell’s feather boa, Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs’ pudding bowl haircuts, those love songs to a rose tinted London where betting shops and chicken shops are nowhere in sight…oh and a back catalogue crammed with classic British pop songs.
 
Without even stopping to think you can immediately come up with five; ‘Like A Motorway’, ‘You’re In A Bad Way’, ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’, ‘Avenue’. When you thought they were no longer capable of the sort of pop music to make Kylie worried they collaborated with Richard X on a track from 2009’s Best Of collection, ‘London Conversations‘, the sublime ‘This Is Tomorrow’, possibly their best ever single.
 
Over the past three years, their entire output has been subject to the ‘Deluxe’ repackaging process. The final two (the remix compilation ‘Casino Classics’ and Cracknell’s solo release; ‘Lipslide’ have just been re-released and with the release of a surprisingly effervescent album earlier on this year, ‘Words and Music by Saint Etienne’, what better time than now to sit back, have that inevitable cup of black coffee (in a greasy spoon in Primrose Hill, obviously) and re-appraise them all?
 
Foxbase Alpha (1991)
 
The music scene in 1991 was dominated by spotty junkies in plaid shirts making sludgy rock music, the Seattle/grunge scene was the soundtrack to many a disenfranchised teenagers bedroom; Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains & Soundgarden were making angsty rock music for kids despite all members pushing thirty. It was also the Year Freddie Mercury died and ‘Nevermind’, the behemoth that broke Kurt Cobain was released, a big year of even bigger changes.
The UK music scene had had a period of stagnation after the acid house boom of the late 80s and while the world was waiting for new product by The Stone Roses, we had ugly no chancers with a sampler making thuggy baggy music, bands such as The Farm were putting the world to rights with crap cover versions clad in sports casual clothes.
 
Then 1991 happened, there probably hasn’t been a year as important for UK rock music in, way more important than 1994s Britpop boom. This is the year that gave us My Bloody Valentine’s ‘Loveless’, ‘Screamadelica’ by Primal Scream, Swervedriver’s ‘Raise’, Teenage Fanclub’s ‘Bandwagonesque’. Each of them stand as truly great albums, all tellingly released on the Creation label. Foxbase Alpha, Saint Etienne’s debut album also enjoys such a lofty position much loved in many a discerning music fan’s collection.
 
Saint Etienne at this stage were not the four piece (Ian Catt being an equally essential member of the group but rarely mentioned) we grew to love, more a project based around Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley’s production with rotating vocalists. ‘Foxbase Alpha’ is gloriously schizophrenic; pop, dub, techno & ambient music accompanying their true love of 60’s girl groups, songs penned by Brian Wilson, the cut and paste sampling of De La Soul & The Jungle Brothers and the production skills of Phil Spector.
 
Foxbase was very much an album of its time and with almost twenty years elapsing since release, it has suffered from the 1990’s production techniques used but that doesn’t prevent their knack of great of making great pop shine through to this day.
‘Girl VII’ may have taut house beats but the jangling indie guitars clearly show where their allegiance lied, the samples used on ‘She’s the one’ are so ramshackle they sound more like a stroke of calculated genius than a lack of money and studio experience, the closing refrain of “He hit me and it felt like a kiss” is the clearest indication of there they were coming from, something which lasts to this day. The true gem here is of course ‘Nothing can stop us now’ with its choppy guitars and flute solos, a perfect combination of nineties pop music and Northern Soul club stompers.
 
In between Foxbase and second album So Tough, they released several non album singles with some incredible b-sides and these make up the majority of disc two. ‘Kiss and make up’ is six unforgettable minutes of chilled ambient pop while the dirty beats, vinyl crackles and pimped up wah wah guitars on ‘Filthy’ featuring teenage rapper Q-Tee Predates trip hop and in particular Tricky’s ‘Maxinquaye’ album by three whole years.
The male diva groans on ‘Speedway’ and the primitive house track ‘Chase HQ’ sound like the result of a night out at Shoom; these tracks epitomise how at this time they were frantically throwing as many things at the musical wall to see what stuck, these were truly creative times despite some of it now sounding like it should have stayed in the vaults. Let’s face it though, who these days would have the guts, nerve and brilliant naivety to you know…give it a go?
 
8/10
 
So Tough (1993)
 
Taking the album name from a 1970 Beach Boys album was a signal of intent. If you’re going to connect yourself to the finest pop group of all time, stakes need to be raised.Luckily, this 1993 sophomore album was the first album they made as a band and everything clicked into place from the outset with quality failing to be anything other than top notch.
 
Opening track ‘Mario’s Cafe’ is masterful. Tough dance beats, mournful violin and flute solos play with lyrics about “Rainy café, Kentish Town, Tuesday, joking around still digging that sound” while enquiring “Did you see the Klf last night?” , these lyrics made London sound like the coolest place in the world in just under four minutes.Interspersed with samples from films such as Billy Liar, That’ll be the day and assorted 60’s kitchen sink dramas, they showed a new found confidence in what they were trying to achieve with this album and found them dipping into other genres with ease such as the ska influenced house rocker ‘Railway Jam’.
 
The singles released from the album are some of their best, the otherworldly ambience on ‘Avenue’ adds a warmth to the then prevalent shoegaze scene and ‘You’re in a bad way’ is the sound of the Supremes if they were born in Archway. Even the lyrics channel the spirit of their mid 60’s output, Sarah is in irresistible form as she advises “Jeans are old and your hair’s all wrong, don’t you know that crew cuts and trainers are out again? Going out, you’re feeling low….running for cover it looks like it’s going to rain (what a shame)”.
 
The bonus CD is equally varied, they cover Teenage Fanclub’s finest hour ‘Everything flows’ and transform it into dark pop , while another single from this period, ‘Who do you think you are’ is so damn heartbreaking it will have you searching for a Tennant / Lowe song writing credit. Merging the beats from Depeche Mode’s ‘Enjoy the silence’ with flamenco guitars on Duke Duvet’ is enthralling, however their dubious cover of ‘I’m too sexy’ highlights how there will never be any need for acid house reinterpretations of Right Said Fred songs.
 
‘So Tough’ is an album that has proved to be timeless, the reason for this is how they looked to the past, present and future and came up with their ideas of how it should sound. It’s a given fact that anybody who has made a good pop album since has a copy of this one to reference to.
Their second classic album of the 90’s in a row? That is beyond question.
 
9/10
 
Tiger Bay (1994)

1994, the seeds of the crazily over-rated Brit Pop were just sprouting into the snotty nosed second rate indie bands it spawned, let us not remember Shampoo right now shall we?
 
As a movement however, Britpop (this excludes Blur, Oasis and Elastica who all transcended the moniker to become the leading lights of said scene) made everyone feel like they were in the last gang of town and whilst turgid indie popsters such as Echobelly and Menswear were the de rigour of indie bedrooms across the land. It took Saint Etienne to provide the pop music to the film soundtrack and on their third album, ‘Tiger Bay’, they did it perfectly.
 
1994 heralded the mature sounding St Etienne. Gone were the camp euro poppisms of tracks such as ‘You’re in a bad way’ to be replaced by something much more considered and artistic. Behind the bubblegum exterior of front lady Sarah Cracknell, all feather boas and chardonnay breath stood Bob Stanley, Pete Wiggs & Ian Catt making some very sophisticated and very serious British pop music, it clicked gloriously into place on this album. They veered away from the samplitude of previous material and for the first time collaborated with outsiders. The burbling techno on intro ‘Urban Clearway’, co-produced by Underworld had them pulling the genius stroke of mixing their sorrowful, soaring retro horn sounds with minimal house beats to great effect.
 
With age, pretentious songs about drinking coffee in twee North West London cafes haven’t aged well but with Tiger Bay, they reached out to record something more thoughtful, the dreamy acoustica of ‘Former Lover’ pre-dates Goldfrapp’s wicker-man referencing ‘Seventh Tree’ by a mere fourteen years, in fact, her entire back catalogue can be traced back directly to this album. 
 
 ‘Like a Motorway’ and ‘Hug my soul were two of the best tracks from the nineties, the former, a master class in pop exhilaration, latter a brooding song about death set to a pulsing Giorgio Moroder style baseline to kill for, a stone cold classic which sounds more and more relevant as the years go by.  
‘Cool Kids of death’ also co-produced with Underworld is reminiscent of early 90s house tracks whilst Shara Nelson’s velvety croon is poured over the delightful flamenco led dub track ‘On the shore’, and proves to be a pleasant break from Sarah Cracknell’s vocals.
 
This re-release has a bonus disc of exclusive tracks, the usual rules apply here, they’re mostly non-exclusive tracks, just the b-sides from the singles released from the album and a couple of demo tracks.‘Urban Clearway’ is particularly fascinating as it shows how Wiggs and Stanley could turn their hand to techno without the assistance of Underworld, this version sounding like the kind of techno CJ Bolland was making at the time with tracks such as ‘Rave Signal’.
Elsewhere, there are a couple of yawnsome acoustic tracks which highlight the reason why they didn’t make the grade and as for the excruciating ‘Black Horse Latitude’ with Cracknell rapping over crunchy guitars about Arsenal being champions again and the god-awful pun very much intended line of “Is Michael Jackson’s ‘Dangerous’ is ‘bad’ as people say?”…oh stop it Sarah…no really, don’t ever do that.
 
Knowing winks on tracks that should have stayed in the vaults aside, ‘Tiger Bay’ has stood the test of time much more than their other albums. For all the praise given to their debut ‘Foxbase Alpha’, that album is very much of its time and sounds like it was made twenty years ago as it was, whereas ‘Tiger Bay’ will stay fresh forever, it’s subtle, unassuming and very classy.
 
10/10
 
Saint Etienne – ‘Casino Classics’
 
Saint Etienne always had the savviest of remix packages, coming at a time where everyone had a bunch of crappy remixes added to the second or third cd of a disc set, Saint Etienne always had the absolute cream, the original version of ‘Casino Classics’ is crammed with brilliant re-interpretations, this 4 disc reboot is an extensive collection of mixes from this album’s original release back in ’96 onwards.
 
Many of the mixes here have obviously dated but there’s still plenty which excites as much now as it did then. Weatherall’s dubby take on ‘Only love can break your heart’ and Pete Heller’s sun-dazed Ibizan dub mix of ‘Kiss & Make-up are hazy mixes designed to chill. Gordon King’s mix of the sublime ‘Avenue’ embodies the late 80s house vibe perfectly whereas Underworld’s extended mix of a track they produced; ‘Cool kids’ of death’ takes a track which fused disco, pop & techno and spread it out over ten euphoric minutes that never EVER gets boring and PFM’s show-stopping mix of ‘The Sea’ is a landmark in the world of remixes and a stone cold classic on the atmospheric drum n bass scene which still sounds amazing.
 
Many of the mixes on the original release have been replaced with ones after 1996,  stand-outs include a tough break beat work-out of ‘Boy is crying’ by Hybrid and Richard X’s brilliant mix of ‘Method of Modern Love’ which returns Saint Etienne back to their poppy mid 90s peak.
 
Less successful are the horrid Tiesto hard trance rework of Action’ and Paul Van Dyke’s mix of ‘How we used to live’ is relentless big room dance music in a similar vein, on the other scale, Two Lone Swordsmen take one of Saint Etienne’s absolute heartbreakers; ‘Heart Failed’ and turns it into some aimless electro minimalism. Minor gripes aside, ‘Casino Classics’ continues to be an absolutely critical part of Saint Etienne’s history, you get right down to the band’s dance floor DNA and the decision to tweak the contents to make it more contemporary is a shrewd move making it just as essential as it was when previously released.
 
9/10
 
Sarah Cracknell –‘ Lipslide’
 
The problem with the idea of a Sarah Cracknell album is that it would sound y’know, like Saint Etienne, just not as good, once the idea became reality…that’s what you got.
 
Without Pete Wiggs & Bob Stanley’s pop knack and the production skills of Ian Catt (although he does surface here), ‘Lipslide’ suffered from the listener wondering what could have been if it was a Saint Etienne release. Not to say ‘Lipslide’ doesn’t have its merits, the electro of ‘Desert baby’, ‘Anymore’s twee cutie pie pop and the Pet Shop Boys meets Patrick Cowley sadness of‘Taking off for France’ is as good as the finest material from her day job.
 
6/10
 
 
Continental (1999)
 
When it comes to an odds and sods exercise, Saint Etienne’s 1993 compilation ‘You need a mess of help to stand alone’ is untouchable, it’s one of their best albums. This album, originally only released in Japan serves as a similar full stop on one part of their musical journey and heralding the beginning of the next.
After ‘Tiger Bay’, there was a full four year gap before their next album ‘Good Humor’, they had ridden the wave of baggy but decided to lay low while Britpop came and thankfully went.

During this time Sarah embarked on a blink and you’d miss it solo career as per the previous review in 1997, they released this.
This is a pointless addition to the re-issues but within you’ll find some great lost tracks that stand up to their best material. The cover of Gary Numan’s ‘Stormtrooper in Drag’ produced by a pre-Xenomania Brian Higgins is full on poppers drenched euro-trance with Cracknell on delectable form.
 
Equally as flouncy is ‘He’s on the phone’, their last attempt at chart domination which at the time of release in 1995 veered all too close to the all out Euro pop cheese that was the sound at the time but now serves as a definite point in their career where they decided that it wasn’t the video but Gina G and the ilk who killed the radio star, as a last stab at an all out pop hit, it’s damn near perfect albeit hideously dated.
 
Tapping into the sound of the time was their foray into drum n bass; ‘The Sea‘, mixed by PFM, but instead of the hundreds of lame tracks that were around at this time where everyone had to have a drum n bass remix, this still sounds like a vital slab of the most atmospheric stuff you can find in that genre while the sun drenched dub of ‘Lover plays the bass’ is delightfully drowsy and alluring.
 
7/10
 
Good Humor (1998)
 
Produced by Tore Johansson whose productions tellingly include The Cardigans. ‘Good Humor’, their fourth album could be any album by the Swedish pop group. This was a turning point for the band which in terms of sales they never fully recovered from.
Creative abandon was replaced with an indie pop sheen. This was the sound of the band going through the motions, oddly similar to Kylie’s ‘Impossible Princess’ album, the one she went all ‘indie’. This is the sound of Saint Etienne, always affiliated with the indie scene, doing what was expected of them but not doing it well.
 
5/10
 
Sound of Water (2000)
 
If 98’s Good Humour was the sound of a band scratching their collective head, this follow up from 2000 is an assured step towards something more challenging, low key and left of centre. This is generally achieved when Sean O’ Hagan and To Rococo Rot are on board on arrangement duties, O’Hagan’s soaring orchestration and Beach Boys obsession particularly prevalent especially on tracks such as ’Sycamore’ and ‘Downey CA’.
The one killer track here is mournful ’Heart failed (in the back of the taxi)’ but without Ian Catt’s on board, they lose his prowess in pop music. Although very atmospheric, the post rock sheen tends to set your mind to drifting elsewhere.
 
6/10
 
Finisterre (2002)
 
Originally released in 2002, Saint Etienne’s sixth album embraces harsh electronic beats and cold Germanic synths one minute and emotional early seventies Bruce Johnston compositions for The Beach Boys the next, listen to ’Stop and think it over’ and wonder how the famously lawsuit happy band’s lawyers weren’t straight on the phone.
 
‘Finisterre’ was accompanied by a film of the same name, a film about London and all there is to love and hate narrated by British actor Michael Jayston. This narration is also used on the album but fails to be as effective as the samples they used on ‘So Tough’ and at times sounding like they were just put in there to marry up the two together but fails to be cohesive.
 
Saint Etienne perform best when they are wrenching emotion from their machines, the best example here is the throbbing disco-ism and vocoders effects on ‘New Thing’. ‘B92’ follows the same vein, urgent Patrick Cowley influenced disco and Sarah proclaiming that “The boys are back in town…and nothing can stop us now, this is our wall of sound”, it’s arrogant swagger a pleasant surprise.
 
Elsewhere ‘Amateur’ shows off a newly acquired aggressive edge, a show stopping track of pissed off techno pop and guitar feedback, it could almost be a musical response to Radiohead’s ‘Idioteque’ while the swooning title track has them lamenting the loss of innocence and rise of stupidity in telling lines such as “So look beyond Big Brother, gossip culture, So bored of stupidity…the myth of common sense” backed by meaty break beats showing they still love to throw a spanner in the works when least expected.
 
Although their chart bothering days were behind them, they hadn’t lost any of their wide eyed love of experimentation and willingness to refuse playing it safe but when they did stick to the formula, it backfired. The unfortunate rapping on ‘Soft like me’ reaches Ant & Dec levels on the cringeometer especially when it’s Saint Etienne at their perkiest while lead single ‘Action’ co-written by chief Xenomania bod Brian Higgins revisited their euro pop worst.
Minor gripes aside, Finisterre is a welcome addition to the Saint Etienne back catalogue and with the benefit of hindsight, you become fully aware of the treats that were to unfold with Goldfrapp’s ‘Supernature’ album who were obviously listening very closely….a reason alone to love this album.
 
8/10
 
Tales From Turnpike House (2005)
 
2005’s ‘Tales from Turnpike House’ is a concept album about a block of flats in Islington that continued the momentum they captured on 2002‘s ‘Finisterre‘, embellishing their sound with even more lashings of Beach Boys instrumentation and harmonies, the latter thanks to Tony Rivers, a veteran in lush backing vocals for Cliff Richards and even more dubiously, Shakin’ Stevens.
 
‘Milk Bottle Symphony’ marries Saint Etienne’s brand of pop with The Beach Boys’ ‘Cabinessence’ or the ‘Good Vibrations’ suite to marvellous effect. ‘A good thing’ tries to recapture their mid 90’s peak with harder beats and an uplifting chorus but falls short in trying too hard. This must be at least the 15th song of theirs to mention going to the café showing they rarely frequent these places nowadays days as no romance can be gleaned from a trip the Starbucks or Costa’s that now plague London high streets.
 
The pinnacle of ‘Turnpike house’ is reached with the spectacular ’Last orders for Gary Stead’, an almost chugging glam rock guitar is embraced with clanking pianos and more sublime Wilson brothers vocal harmonising. Xenomania also throw in their two pennies worth with ‘Stars above us’, another song to add to the huge cannon of superior pop songs Saint Etienne can still knock out in their sleep.
 
All this and a duet with David Essex concerning a couple arguing about living in or leaving London which is…well, the less said about THAT the better.
 
7/10
 
Saint Etienne - Words and Music by Saint Etienne (Heavenly)
 
Saint Etienne have been around for so long now that you know exactly what you’re getting with each long playing release, the genres may shift very slightly due to whatever is contemporary at the time but the mood and sentiment, always the same.
 
Five years since their last effort, 2007’s warm and understated 'Tales from Turnpike House', an album which fused whimsical pop with their much noted love of early 70's Beach Boys Carl Wilson led harmonies, they’ve stopped chasing the current sounds of now and made their most conventional album to date.
 
After half a decade filled with composing film soundtracks and a major re-mastering program of their extensive back catalogue, there is no real change in their sound, there’s no hark back to their sample heavy highpoints such as ‘So Tough’ or their drop dead gorgeous ‘Tiger Bay’, it just…sounds like Saint Etienne.
 
One thing that hangs heavy throughout much of the lyrical content aside from the gravitational pull of pop music through Smash hits and 7” singles is the sense that they’re not immortal after all, where nothing could stop them previously, now staying up beyond  nine pm is a major no-no. Sarah Cracknell spends much of the album reminiscing about the hopes and dreams of youth, the opening track ‘Over the border’ has her remembering  how as a child she went to Peter Gabriel's house so she could see him and bought records from ‘Woolies’’ while wondering if Marc Bolan would mean as much to her when she was older and had kids. These are references very specific to a certain age, but wrapped up in the universal sound of pop music with occasional tweak of auto-tune, used in a very Saint Etienne post-modern kinda way.
 
For anyone else, they would be dismissed as cheese but tracks such as ‘I got your music’, a knowing nod to Stock Aitken and Waterman’s one moment of musical integrity, is them at their gloriously fizziest whilst the breathy vocal processing on ‘The last days of disco’ is the best Kylie song Minogue hasn’t sung yet while ‘Tonight’ has Cracknell excitedly applying make-up and getting ready to paint the town red on the way to a gig by her favourite band, readying to go wild when the lights go down and wondering “Maybe they'll open with an album track? Or a top five hit no turning back”, the sentiment is is recognisable and highly admirable but the reality is that she’s likely that she’s more excited at the 3 for 2 offers down the organic section of Budgens in Crouch End these days.
 
Their dancing days seemed numbered on their previous album as they pondered relocation to the countryside with David Essex of all people, on this showing however they’ve rejected the good life and headed back to the dry ice and lasers and bizarrely “making out to the DJ” on ‘DJ’.
 
For all this pop posturing, it’s ‘When I was 17”, the least pop track which is the highlight here. As bitter sweet as their absolute finest tracks such as ‘Like a Motorway’, it jangles gloriously like an indie band half their age but still, the sorrowful key change from verse to chorus is an heartbreaker and shows that even two decades down the line, they can still outpop the best of them without having to resort to a featuring Pitbull or Rihanna co-billing.
 
8/10
 

COMMENTS