SAINT ETIENNE, Foxbase Alpha
Melody Maker, 1991
by Simon Reynolds
"Never let a rock critic near a guitar", I once decreed, convinced that the sheer knowingness intrinsic to the rockcrit sensibility was deleterious to intuition, instinct and the semi-conscious pursuit of the sublime. Now I could probably extricate myself on a technicality (Bob Stanley mostly grapples with synths and samplers, not guitars), butthe fact is "Foxbase Alpha" forces me to eat my own edict.
Saint Etienne show that a certain kind of learned eclecticism doesn't have to lead to weak-ass whimsicalpick'n'mix. For this pop-about-pop approach to transcend its inherent limitations, your record collection has to be pretty weird. Stanley & Wiggs' taste is as idiosyncratic as it gets. For the life of me I can't fathom what the thread is that connects Phil Spector, lover's rock, Northern Soul,psychedelia, Neil Young's courtly love side, Sixties girl-pop and A.R. Kanish dub-noise, as part of a single, seamless aesthetic continuum. It ought to be a mess, but for the duration of this album, it works like a dream.
Foxbase Alpha is never-never pop, the soundtrack to an alternative universe, swinging England where World Of Twist are Number One and pop stars still wear gold lame. It's a record that charms you into a gooey stupor, rather than burns your eye with visionary vastness. Saint Etienne offer delight instead of rapture; their love songs are about tenderness rather than desire, lingering gazes and holding hands rather than gonad-motion. Saint Etienne's soul is rooted in the anorak-clad innocence of 1986 (hence their cover of "Kiss and Make Up" by cutie fundamentalists The Field Mice).
Much of Foxbase Alpha is C86 'perfect pop' on a post- house footing. "Carn't Sleep" combines the prosaic purity of Sixties girl-pop with pseudo-orchestral muzak, heart-pang bass and prickly rhythm guitar. "Girl VII" cuts between nonchalant reverie, an upward-spiralling chorus of rapturous strings and heart-in-mouth vox, and a peculiar litany of London tube stations and cosmoplitan cities: Tufnell Park, San Paolo, Dollis Hill, Bratislava.... The best of this side of Saint Etienne remains "Nothing Can Stop Us Now". The love-as-fortitude lyrics turn my stomach ("you smooth out all the rough edges/with love and devotion... just the touch of your hand/and I know we're gonna make it" -yeuuch!), and Sarah Cracknell's voice is just a little too creamy, but the flute-piping euphoria is irresistible.
But if Foxbase Alpha was all in this vein, it would be merely an exceedingly pleasant record. (Indeed, "Spring" and "She's The One" edge dangerously close to Mari Wilson/white Sade blandness). What makes it so relentlessly listenable are the weird experimental touches: "Wilson", a sound-collage of ridiculously antiquated English voices from a late Sixties decimal currency training record, looped over a flanged and reverbed beat as psychedelic as Dudley Moore's "Bedazzled", or the creepy, 23 Skidoo-ish tribal mantra of "Etienne Gonna Die", complete with acrimonious poker player movie dialogue.
Foxbase Alpha really comes alive on side two. "Stoned To Say The Least" starts as a foreboding trance-dance pulse, over which backwards guitar uncoils as beautifully as Stone Roses' "Don't Stop" and angelic synths hover; then the track escalates into an astral turmoil of feedback refractions and amp-hum. "London Belongs To Me" is staggering. Imagine a collision between the aesthetics of Talulah Gosh and A.R. Kane, twee and torrential, camp and sublime. The song begins as one of those idyllic interludes in a Sixties movie, a light-headed, walking-on-air shimmer of harpsichords, vibes, flutes and mellotrons. But at the chorus, everything goes topsy-turvy: gravity absconds in a mist of dub-reverbed percussion; Wiggs & Stanley's arrangement cascades stardust and moonbeam, a downfall of precious gems. "Like The Swallow" is possibly even more stupendous and accomplished. Starting as a symphonic samplescape midway between Scott Walker and Brian Eno, dizzy with detail, it mutates into an Ennio Morricone-esque epic, gongs chiming portentously, then abruptly disappears beneath phalanxes of drones like harmonised sonic booms, and the massively amplified sound of a solitary acoustic guitar, plucking an eerie melody. One of the most pleasurably perplexing things I've heard this year.
I can't figure the Saint Etienne aesthetic out, and that's the fun of it. This the name of the game in 1991: constructing your own alternative pop universe, hallucinating the hybrid styles that should have but never did happen. As such, Foxbase Alpha is the perfect companion to Screamadelica: both albums are examples of pop scholars transcending their record collections. No single element on either album is "new", but the coagulated composite of all that warped taste sounds breathtakingly fresh and unforeseen.
SAINT ETIENNE, PROFILE
The Observer, 20th October 1991
by Simon Reynolds
On their delightful debut album, Foxbase Alpha, Saint Etienne mix contemporary house rhythms with the string-swept melodrama of Sixties pop. Amazingly, the creators of this exquisitely crafted sound, Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs, are musical illiterates, who can't play any instruments except for rudimentary keyboard.
Instead, they hum melodic ideas into a tape recorder, gather a few records with beats or sounds that they want to sample, then go into the studio. Messing around on the mixing desk, Saint Etienne recreate the complex arrangements they hear in their heads.
Friends since the age of two, the duo had long fantasised about making pop music. "But because we lacked the patience to learn to play instruments we never thought we'd do it," says Wiggs. But when groups such as S'Express got to the top of the charts with sampler-based records that sounded lavish yet cost only a few hundred pounds to record, Wiggs and Stanley decided to take the plunge.
Their first single, a version of Neil Young's 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart', took two hours and £80 to make. Thanks to pop journalist Stanley's contacts in the music industry, the track reached clubland's top DJs as a pre-release single. Before they knew what was happening, the song was a dance-floor smash, and Saint Etienne had a career on their hands. Recently revamped as their fourth single, 'Only Love' dented the Top 40.
Stanley has now put his writing on hold, in order to concentrate on Saint Etienne and the duo's burgeoning sideline career as producers presiding over a mini-empire of protegés. There's Golden, a female trio on the verge of signing to a major label, while the duo Cola Boy has already signed to Arista. The latter scored the Top Ten 10 hit with the Saint Etienne-penned '7 Ways To Love', an insidiously catchy mix of schlocky Italian disco and Sixties Muzak.
Saint Etienne aim to renovate the grand tradition of stage-managed pop as exemplified by Phil Spector, Holland-Dozier-Holland, and Stock Aitken Waterman — brilliant producers with a stable of interchangeable, photogenic vocalists that they manipulated like puppets. "We like that approach simply because a lot of the time it's produced such brilliant records," says Stanley.
Saint Etienne have no time for the traditional rock belief that such 'manufactured' pop is 'shallow' and 'inauthentic'. "We like pop because it's fast, instant, and glamorous," says Stanley. "Rock groups like The Doors lack humour and suffer delusions of Messiah-like grandeur." The new Saint Etienne single 'People Get Real', due out in January, is a riposte to snobs who "venerate ‘real soul’ and condemn house music as inauthentic."
With their fondness for kitsch and camp, you might expect Foxbase Alpha to be a collection of tacky, disposable singles. In fact, it's an accomplished album whose span ranges from classically-concise pop to eerie instrumentals and grandiose production epics that recall Ennio Morricone; its diverse influences include dub reggae, the noisy dream-pop of AR Kane, Scott Walker's orchestral ballads, and Joe Meek. "Meek was the only interesting British pop figure before the Beatles. On records like ‘Johnny Remember Me’ and ‘Telstar’ he pioneered multi-tracking, echo and over-dub."
Saint Etienne's music has a distinctly English aura, something that's brought to the fore on songs such as 'Girl VII', with its litany of Tube stations, or 'London Belongs To Me', an idyllic reverie of summer in the metropolis. Saint Etienne's never-never pop is imbued with nostalgia for a lost swinging England, for the days when musicians wore groovy gear and knew how to behave like stars. "If we're successful, we'll get all our clothes tailor-made," daydreams Stanley. "We've already had gold lamé suits made for us. Next on the agenda are some bespoke velvet trousers."
SAINT ETIENNE, interview
Melody Maker, 25 April 1992
by Simon Reynolds
"We want to write songs and then deconstruct them," says Bob Stanley. "We want to get weirder and more album oriented. It would be easy to do stuff that's weird that people would find hard to get into, but it would be really brilliant if we could combine both the pop instantness and the weirdness."
Foxbase Alpha, Saint Etienne's critically-acclaimed debut album, was undoubtedly the most deliciously disorientating suite of sound produced last year, and now it looks as though Stanley and his partner, Pete Wiggs, want to expand on the ambient weirdness found on the second side of the LP.
Ironically, their new single, ‘Join Our Club’, is probably the least idiosyncratic thing Saint Etienne have done (it's an all-out bid for a chart hit), but other completed tracks for the new album indicate a more exploratory approach. A track called ‘Calico’, for instance (which features an eerie rap by Q-Tee), is psychedelic, dub-crazed film music, a James Bond theme from an alternative universe, pure kitschadelia.
"The new stuff we've been doing is even weirder," Stanley explains. "Some of it's a bit scary. We spent six weeks in the studio and ended up with two songs and loads and loads of scary bits of songs."
THE EMPIRE FIGHTS BACK
Saint Etienne are diversifying, not just because it's sound business practice, but because one moniker isn't enough to contain all their ideas and impulses. In a couple of weeks, they'll be releasing the first singles for Ice Rink, "a beautiful pop label specialising in maverick genius", funded by Creation. Pete and Bob's sonic empire consists of Oval ("a South East London group, friends of ours, they use real guitars and have two girl singers"), Elizabeth City State ("a bit soulful, lots of string arrangements, their first single's gonna be called 'V-Neck'"), Golden (three girls singing sombre, sepia-tinted Sixties folk harmonies over a House groove) and Sensurround (featuring John Robb, music journalist and ex-Membrane). He and Pete are already planning the Ice Rink compilation, which they hope will consist "entirely of Top Ten hits, but we'll do it whatever happens."
"We're not Svengalis," says Bob. "We might produce the groups, but they're writing all the songs and have their own sounds already."
Not that Saint Etienne have a problem with the Spector tradition of producer megalomania and conveyor belt brilliance. Pete and Bob have no truck with the trade rock belief that ‘manufactured’ pop is ‘shallow’ and ‘unauthentic’.
"We like pop because it's fast, instant, and glamorous", says Bob. "Rock groups like The Doors lack humour and suffer delusions of Messiah-like grandeur".
The B-side of ‘Join Our Club’, ‘People Get Real’, is a mellifluous diatribe against people who venerate ‘real soul’ and condemn House music as ‘unauthentic’. "It's about Kenny Thomas," Bob adds, "and the impending jazz-funk revival. Jazz funk, Kiss FM, it's miles more offensive than any heavy metal."
POP FOR POP'S SAKE
Sometimes it seems like Saint Etienne songs are born of Pete and Bob's rarefied, pop-for-pop's-sake aesthetic, rather than being examples of heart-felt, thorn-from-personal-experience communication. Pop as object (‘What a fab single!’) as opposed to pop as subjective outpouring (‘That really moves me’).
"We're somewhere between the two," says Bob. "Neither of us have really suffered enough to write anything really heartfelt. But the songs aren't totally vacuous. We like disposable pop, but we also like music that's enduring and high art. I'll still be listening to Tim Buckley or Laura Nyro in ten years, but I doubt if I'll be listening to disposable Stock Aitken Waterman-type pop in a year, it's just good for its moment."
Are they motivated to make pop by anything apart from a love of pop?
"Not really," Bob replies. "We definitely want to do something that's not been done before. I've never wanted to be in a group unless there was at least a chance of being as good as my favourite groups. During C86, a lot of my friends were in groups doing really shit music, and they kept asking if I wanted to be involved, and my argument was that unless I could get string arrangements on my records I never wanted to make one. So now we have, by default, using samplers. I won't be happy until we've written songs that can make people burst into tears, something that terrifyingly beautiful. I want to change the way people record, to create sounds that are widely imitated. Some of our next LP is getting there, a lot of it sounds frightening. Some of it sounds like the Far East. It could be brilliant, but it could be our downfall."
HOW DO THEY DO IT?
A Saint Etienne song starts with the pair humming melodic ideas into a tape recorder. Then they gather a few records with beats or sounds that they want to sample, and go into the studio. Messing around on the mixing desk, Pete and Bob recreate the complex arrangements they hear in their heads.
"It's all production and arrangement," Pete explains. "Production in getting other people to do stuff. Our engineer, Ian [Catt], helps us realise our ideas. We just record the basic track and then play with it until it sounds like we want it to sound. It's an advantage that we're not musicians, we just have sounds in our heads, and no preconceptions about their feasibility or what sounds right. Anyone could go in and make a record, but not everybody can make a good record."
HEROES AND VILLAINS
So who, in their opinion, are the all-time most pernicious forces in pop since the beginning? Who's had the most malign influence? Pete says The Doors. Singer Sarah Cracknell says Tina Turner. Bob says Eric Clapton and Cream. Pete, warming to the theme, adds Frank Zappa. And let's not forget Phil Collins.
"The worst thing about people like Phil Collins," grimaces Bob, "is that his records have taken on the status of classics for people like Capital Radio. They're the songs people will remember the Eighties for. They've become bonded to the time and, historically, will suppress what ever else came out at the time that's more deserving.
"Then there's James Brown," Bob continues. "We don't like funk. We don't like slap-bass. I can't get into Parliament and Funkadelic at all, it's too prog, too muso."
And how about heroes, the artists who should have changed the face of pop?
"David Essex," they reply. "The production on 'Rock On' doesn't sound like any record ever made, and his first couple of albums were totally weird. Cockney Rebel were weird, too. Early Fall doesn't sound like any records ever made. There was hardly a wasted B-side back then. The Fall should have given up in the early Eighties. No one's ever picked up on the deliberately badly recorded approach of a track like 'Spector Vs Rector'. Erm, who else? TV Personalities, of course."
"I really admire people who can sit down and write reams of hit singles," says Bob. "I don't just mean Lennon/McCartney or Goffin & King. Martin and Coulter were amazing – they wrote 'Back Home' for the England World Cup Squad in Mexico in 1970, then they wrote 'Sugar Baby Love' for the Rubettes in '74, which is total genius, just one of the most perfect songs ever written, and then they wrote a brilliant disco hit of few years later called 'Automatic Lover' by Dee D Jackson. What talented blokes! Any old style, Martin and Coulter could write a song to order."
Saint Etienne don't like anything that's overwrought (Robert Plant), and are totally opposed to over-emoting. Sarah's vocals are very cool and contained, a stand against what she calls "the arrogance of passion. That kind of thing's about taking yourself too seriously."
CURATOR VERSUS CREATOR
"We were talking to a friend about our record cos our friends never really say what they think about it," says Bob. "And he said it couldn't possibly be the future of music because it used loads of things that had been and gone, and stuck them together. And I said: same as Primal Scream and Massive Attack."
It seems that the state of the art is ‘record collection rock’, pop based around the elaboration of your own idiosyncratic hierarchy of taste. The only scope for new frissons comes when hitherto outlawed, neglected or denigrated sound-sources are introduced to the canon of admissible influences. Screamadelica, Bandwagonesque, Foxbase Alpha – this meta-pop can be glorious, but are there limits to it?
"I don't think there are any limits to it at all," says Bob. "It's a lot more limiting when you get someone forming a band who's only heard music from the last two years, and thinks Jesus Jones are better than The Beatles. If someone's got a large record collection, there are so many loose ends in pop history that nobody's ever followed up that there's limitless work to be done reinterpreting the past. It's never gonna be a dead end."
Obviously, pop's always worked like this. Even The Rolling Stones began as obsessive collectors of blues records. The difference between then and now, though, is that the Stones went on to create, inadvertently, the soundtrack to their era. Today's record collection rock has drifted off into its own self-referential universe, with little connection to life as she is lived.
"I can appreciated the Manics and Fabulous trying to agitate against that, saying that E has turned an entire generation into brain-dead idiots. There is so little energy about in music. I suppose somebody who's connected with the outside world would be into The Prodigy. Techno's the pulse of Young Britain, it's so exciting that you probably don't need Fabulous or the Manics if you're young."
With this new breed of rock scholars like Bobby Gillespie, Norman Blake and Stanley & Wiggs, sooner or later one has to deal with the word ‘trainspotter’. When Bob tells me he's desperately searching for the one and only album by New Musik (early Eighties New Wave abominations) I can't help admiring the sheer sickness of his obsession, but I also wonder whether he's really a suitable role model for a generation.
Wiggs and Stanley aren't candidates for shaman-hood, that's for sure, but they do mourn the disappearance of freaks, aliens and mad prophets in pop (the Kevin Rowlands, Adam Ants and Gary Numans). They know they just don't have it in them to be that stellar, that egomaniacal. They belong in a different category – the great British eccentric.
Here's Bob on Pete: "Peter often has trouble communicating with people. It's weird, but he's a completely different person on the phone. There was one time he was in Paris, and he was ringing me every two hours. He rang just to ask if he should buy this doughnut he'd seen in a bakery. He was ringing his family all the time, too. By the time he got home he'd spent over a hundred quid in calls."
Here's Pete on Bob: "Bob is fascinated by lasers, he visits the London Laserium at least twice a week, and even has a low wattage laser installed in his bedroom. When he dies he wants his coffin to travel through a laser tunnel projected down the aisle of the crematorium."
And Pete on Pete: "The reason I am in a band is that I do whatever the decade dictates: in the Eighties, I was a top businessman; in the Seventies, I was a kung-fu expert; and, in the Sixties, I was a child."
SAINT ETIENNE, Places To Visit [joint review with Position Normal, Stop Your Nonsense]
Village Voice, July 28-August 3, 1999
by Simon Reynolds
....Position Normal's fondness for "found sound" interludes, like the patter of Cockney stallholders in a fruit'n'veg market, reminds me of Saint Etienne's penchant for punctuating their early albums with movie dialogue and cafeteria chat eavesdropped onto a dictaphone. The trio started out as part of that superior early phase of Britpop that included World Of Twist, Denim, and pre-megastardom Pulp. Instead of later Britpop's loutish laddism, the sensibility was mod—fervently English, but cosmopolitan, as open to 1960s French girl-pop, '90s Italo-house, and A.R. Kane's halcyon dub-noise as it was to Motown and Dusty Springfield. Trouble was, the trio's futile fixation on scoring a UK Top Ten hit persuaded them to gradually iron out all their experimentalist excrescences. Reconvening in 1998 after a four-year sabbatical, Saint Etienne got sleeker and slicker still on Good Humour, abandoning sampling altogether for Swedish session-musicianship and a clean, crisp sound inspired by "Lovefool" Cardigans and Vince Guaraldi's lite-jazz Charlie Brown music.
A pleasant surprise, then, to report that Saint Etienne's six-track EP Places to Visit is an unexpected reversion to...everything that was ever any good about them. "Ivyhouse" is angel's breath ethereal like they've not been since their debut album's dubtastic "London Belongs To Me." Produced by Sean O'Hagan of avant-MOR outfit The High Llamas, "52 Pilot" features sparkling vibes, an elastic heartstring bassline out of "Wichita Lineman," and radical stereo separation (don't try this one on headphones). And "Artieripp" is a tantalizing tone-and-texture poem as subtly daubed as anything by Mouse On Mars.
Drawing on diverse talents like O'Hagan and Chicago avant-gardist-for-hire Jim O'Rourke, Places resituates Saint Etienne among the sound-sculptor ranks. (Their next project is apparently a collaboration with German art-techno outfit To Rococo Rot). They're aesthetes in love with the Pop Song not for its expressive power but for the sheerly formal contours of its loveliness. Hopefully, Places to Visit will work like Music for the Amorphous Body Study Centre did for Stereolab: as a rejuvenating sideline, a detour that parodoxically sets them back on a truer course.
SAINT ETIENNE, Sound of Water
from Faves of 2000
by Simon Reynolds
This one seems to have disappointed the fans; I reckon it their best since So
Tough, integrating the two sides of their collective personality (pure pop
enchantment versus studio-as-instrument sorcery) as never before. A soft
soundclash of digital programming (with help from German post-rock unit To
Rococo Rot) and lushly arranged acoustica (courtesy of detail-freak Sean O'Hagan
from High Llamas/Stereolab), Sound of Water glistens and ripples with exquisite nuances. It's beyond headphone-friendly: wearing a pair is virtually de rigeur, just to catch all the scintillating near-subliminal subtleties--like the Pierre Henry/Jean-Jacques Perrey analog blarps and pnoots peeking out from the crannies of "Sycamore"'s lush harpsichord-and-harmony arrangement. Like their other albums, Sound of Water offers a cornucopia of pop equations (Petula Clark + [Mouse On Mars X Angelo Badalamenti] = "Downey CA") and alternative-history
scenarios ("Late Morning" is from the parallel universe where Burt Bacharach
teamed up with Steve Reich to become a two-man hit-factory). Two tracks stand
out for me. The twinkling snowscape production of "Just A Little Overcome"
enfolds what might just be the groop's most accomplished and beautifully poised
piece of songwriting and singing yet---"adult", but in a good way. "How We Used
To Live"'s triptych structure shifting elegantly from orchestrated/observational
pop (Montague Terrace in Yellow, Scott Walker minus the existensialist
paperbacks and Ingmar Bergman movies) through Orbital-gone-Eurovision shimmy to
Rotary Connection-style cosmik jazz. Saint Etienne have grown-up gracefully.
SAINT ETIENNE, Smash the System: Singles and More
by Simon Reynolds
Listening to this double-CD anthology, your first reaction is: Saint Etienne were cheated. They should have spanned the Nineties with a string of Number Ones, yet despite strenuous efforts, they never even cracked the Top Ten. Cheated, then, but what can you do? Pop is a cruel mistress, and anybody touting a vision of "perfect pop" is cruising for a bruising. See, pop aesthetes are never really affirming the totality of everything that sells (the only real definition of pop: hit for hit, Iron Maiden and Dire Straits are two of our biggest "pop" acts ever) but instead hone in on those precious few sublime flashes amid the crass and the crud. Their distilled and eternalized vision of "pure pop" inevitably gets more and more out-of-step with marketplace realities as time goes by.
This doesn't invalidate the notion of never-never pop---some of the best music ever has come about through being dreamed against the times. But any discussion of this Saint Etienne career retrospective ought to address their "failure": the fact that they never really connected with the populace as yer actual bought-by-kids-at-Woolies chart fodder. Their singles typically lingered in the chart somewhere between two and five weeks, suggesting a compact, tautly defined fan-base. Saint Etienne simply lack the common touch (could a song called "Hobart Paving" ever really become an "our song" for some everyday couple?). Even when they later adopted a "competitive" sound (modelled on the Europop that dominated mid-Nineties charts), some sort of subconsciously self-sabotaging impulse, their pop aesthete's integrity, ensured that the lyrics remained too-damn-smart.
Another quality that made Saint Etienne jar with the Nineties chartpop scheme is the romantic chasteness of their love songs. Saint Etienne were the missing link between two quintessentially English moments, C86 and Britpop (they were part of that superior prequel for the latter that included World of Twist, Denim, and Pulp). Their lovely second single "Kiss and Make Up" was a Field Mice cover, and a trademark C86 cutie-pop sexlessness runs through the discography. Sarah Cracknell's gritless, un-sultry voice---sometimes divinely fragrant and airy, sometimes too sweet 'n' creamy, like sipping condensed milk---has as much in common with Amelia Fletcher from Talulah Gosh/Heavenly as with Northern soul or Petula Clark-style Palladium pop. Contrasted with today's rampant, sexually explicit R&B, it's striking how demure and above-the-waist Saint Etienne songs are--all about TLC not carnal ecstasy, devotion rather than desire. There's even a sort of running theme about holding hands: "It's too hot to even hold hands/But that won't stop us from making plans" coos "London Belongs To Me" ( a heinous omission from this comp), "just the touch of your hand... and I know we're gonna make it" purrs "Nothing Can Stop Us Now," while "Join Our Club" features the classic Cracknell listener come-on "I know you want to hold my hand/I know you're gonna love my band". And they expected this sort of virginal stuff to play with today's kids?!
Any Saint Etienne best-of missing "London Belongs To Me"' and So Tough gems like "Leafhound," "Calico", and the Rush-sampling "Conchita Martinez", has got some problems. But there's more than enough included to remind you why Saint Etienne warrant worship. "Carnt Sleep" recalls A.R. Kane's own doomed pop move "i": a lovely wistful skank, all reverbed rimshots, prickles of rhythm guitar, and plaintive piano. Featuring nymphet rapper Q-Tee, "Filthy" anticipates the Chemical Brothers with its looped break, stinging wah-wah riff, and deep rolling bass. "Mario's Cafe" is delightful English observational pop with Dury/Squeeze-style references to the Racing Post and bacon rind, and delicious early Nineties pop allusions (the girl who dreams of an evening with PM Dawn's Prince B., people talking about the KLF on TOTP the night before). And then there's "Avenue", one of the all-time great lost should-a-been Number Ones. Commercially suicidal at almost eight minutes, it's a mad mash-up of Dollar, Kate Bush, "Good Vibrations", and "Papua New Guinea", with a lyric as indecipherable (thanks partly to Cracknell's ultra-breathy, soaringly celestial singing) and enigmatic as an Alan Resnais movie. A special mention for engineer/programmer/unoffical fourth member Ian Catt, who clearly earned his "Avenue" songwriting credit.
When "Avenue" stalled at Number 40 in October '92, it was an indictment of the modern world, not Saint Etienne. The group should have turned their back on chartpop, gone weird; instead, they did the opposite. Towards the end of the first disc, this compilation turns into a document of Saint Etienne's misguided quest to score that elusive Top Ten hit, involving the gradual ironing-out of all the experimentalist lumps in their sound (the dub-wise cascades, the found sound interludes, the strange codas like the trippy Magical Mystery Tour bit that ends "Avenue"). "Who Do You Think You Are" is typically perverse: a blatant chart bid, but surely pop scholars Wiggs & Stanley must have known that the bubblegum original didn't even make the Top 20 in 1974? "Pale Movie," a "Fernando"-meets-Paul Van Dyk shimmer is lovely, but others from the Euro phase ("He's On The Phone", "Angel", "Burnt Out Car") sound facelessly efficient, all chugging sequenced basslines and trance-lite beats.
Saint Etienne then took a four year sabbatical and returned in 1998 with Good Humor, replacing their synths and samples with a more organic sound (Swedish session musicians, influences from The Cardigans and Vince 'Charlie Brown' Guaraldi). The clutch of tracks here from this phase seem oddly chastened-sounding, modest in ambition. With last year's Sound of Water, though, Saint Etienne seem to be trying to carve out a post-pop identity--discreetly experimental, "adult". Songs like "Just A Little Overcome" (not included) are as good as anything they've ever done. So hopefully this compilation is just greatest hits-and-misses so far, a first instalment of towering "pop" genius.
SAINT ETIENNE, Travel Edition 1990-2005 / PSAPP, Tiger My Friend
by Simon Reynolds
When it comes to female vocalists, England’s true forte isn’t divas--all those brassy, belting Aretha-wannabes like Annie Lennox and Joss Stone. No, it’s the demure singer. In mainstream terms, think Dido. But there's also an indie lineage of small-voiced singers that started with Alison Statton (of Young Marble Giants and Weekend) and Tracy Thorn (of Everything But the Girl), and that's where Psapp’s Galia Durant belongs. She projects a subdued, self-contained sensuality, an attractive blend of aloofness and vulnerability. Tiger, My Friend resembles a contemporary update of the sort of stuff Tracy Thorn and partner Ben Watt did in the Eighties: achingly melodic almost-pop that’s ultimately too introverted to barge its way into the charts. It’s the sound of the English “bedsit”, those cramped apartments (bedroom and sitting room combined) where students and just-out-of-college kids live and fall in and out of love. This being 2004, though, bedsit doesn’t mean Thorn & Watt’s lightly jazzy acoustic guitars, but the sort of chirruping electronica spun by Durant’s partner Carim Clasmann out of quirky samples of cat’s miaows and glitchy drums that skitter like an egg-whisk on cellophane.
Saint Etienne specialize in a different sort of almost-pop and vocalist Sarah Cracknell is the queen of another kind of demure Englishness, rooted in Petula Clark rather than Astrud Gilberto. Her voice can be wonderfully fresh and fragrant, but also a tiny bit cloying at times, like sipping melted ice cream. This handy if somewhat compressed anthology follows Saint Etienne’s 15 year journey from lovely homespun dance pop (like their soft reggae cover of Neil Young “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”) through the experimental majesty of “Avenue” (Kate Bush meets Abba) to their mid-Nineties struggle to score a UK Top Ten hit. That fruitless period ironed out a lot of the group’s charming quirks, replacing them them with a rather characterless Europop sound of chugging sequenced basslines and trance beats, and then gave way in turn to an even more wan phase of trying to imitate The Cardigans. Thankfully, 2000’s Sound of Water saw Saint Etienne return to form with a mature sound that discreetly secreted avant-garde touches inside intricately layered pop, like the 8 minute long song-suite “"How We Used To Live." 2002’s Finisterre, represented here by its haunting title track, suggests a continued second wind for this great British group, whose singles all reach #1 in a parallel pop universe far superior to our own.
SAINT ETIENNE Presents Finisterre: A Film About London
Directed by Paul Kelly and Kieran Evans
Village Voice, November 30th, 2005
by Simon Reynolds
“Finisterre”, the title track of Saint Etienne’s 2002 album, was an aesthetic manifesto that among other things imagined leaping straight from the Regency Era
to Bauhaus-style modernism, in the process skipping almost the entire 19th Century. In a way, that’s what this DVD--an enchanting meander through London that’s less a documentary than a visual poem--does too. You get little sense of the city as Dickens would have understood it: the hustle-bustle of a place somewhere people work and produce. Finisterre’s first images are a suburban train heading into London at the crack of dawn, before the commuter crush, and the only sense of commotion and congestion come much later with footage shot at various gigs and bars.
There’s a sense in which the city could only be made beautiful by minimizing the presence of its inhabitants, who are either absent or typically appear on the edge of shot. Directors Paul Kelly and Kieran Evans strip away the hubbub to reveal a secret city of silence and stillness, reverie rather than revelry. The film is literally composed largely of stills--buildings, graffiti, faded posters, half-deserted cafes, store fronts. People, when they appear, are rarely in motion. The gaze of this flaneur-camera aestheticizes everything: a homeless man becomes a compositional figure (mmmm, look at the curvature of spine) and a neglected playground generates attractive patterns of rust-mottled metal and stained brickwork.
It would have been heavy-handed to use such images as signifiers of urban decay and dysfunction, but a teensy dose of Ken Loach wouldn’t have gone amiss. A different Ken (Livingstone, the Mayor of London) gives his thumbs-up in the DVD booklet, and no wonder: it’ll trigger a tourism micro-boom by luring Saint Etienne’s already Anglophile fanbase abroad. Watching Finisterre made this London-born expatriate yearn to hop on the next flight home, too. But I suspect this is actually the last word in a certain way of looking at, and living with, a city that’s unmanageably vast and often pretty grim. File it next to Iain Sinclair’s psychogeographic walking tours or the greasy spoon memory-work of Adrian Maddox’s Classic Cafes-- forms of mourning for a city that’s always dying. Finisterre is a beautiful film about London. But beauty is only half the story, because cities are always rebirthing themselves too, and birth ain’t a pretty sight.
[These reissues dedicated to Sally Shapiro and Johan Agebjorn, makers of the wondrous Disco Romance]