Friday, February 20, 2009

A love letter to Saint Etienne...

As I was gearing up to post about artists who released some seriously disappointing efforts over the past year, I got swept away by the beauty of the new comprehensive singles collection from Saint Etienne, London Coversations. I quickly decided that I would rather speak about the attributes of this band and their music than dwell on all that was wrong with the last Madonna record. After all, this is tomorrow, and the Ets seem like they have always been there like a comfy chair, with Sarah Cracknell's voice operating, as Morrissey said in a recent interview, as a soothing "caress".

First of all, I must warn you about the confusion surrounding the tracklist. Do not cheap out on the two disc version unless you don't care about missing MY favorite song of the new year (so far), "Method of Modern Love", as it only appears on the deluxe 3 disc box set (as well as CD singles and downloads). This should be a no-brainer, as it contains a DVD featuring 18 promo videos from "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" through "Side Streets". The booklet is rather charming as well, with artwork from singles, magazine covers, and live date promotions.

Growing up in the geographic center of the United States would not automatically predispose a music fan to liking Saint Etienne. I had been a big fan of British pop since my early teens when the Durans, Culture Clubs, Eurythmics, and Thompson Twins came along, and continued to be fixated on music across the pond throughout the 80's. As the decade came to a close, acid house reigned supreme in the clubs (Yazz & the Plastic Population, S'Express), and began infiltrating the rock world as well (Primal Scream, Happy Mondays, etc.), which was about the time I discovered Saint Etienne. I was working in a now defunct Musicland store in a mall in Kansas when we received one copy of Foxbase Alpha. Featuring what looked like a hippy protestor on the cover, I thought they must be another one of those Candyflip/Beloved type dance bands with a psychedelic tinge. Little did I know just how enamored I would become with this release at the time, putting pretty much everything else of a similar nature aside. Etienne were for real, and although they used lots of sampling technology, they actually sounded like a real band.

While a mini-explosion of electronic rave music was happening with the Shamen and early Prodigy, Saint Etienne provided the perfect antidote to all that craziness and keyboard wizardry with beautifully arranged and structured songs with depth and atmosphere that echoed those wonderful 60's Bacharach melodies in a completely contemporary way. They were much more than a recent flavor for me--they mixed dance beats and indie pop in a unique and very British way. All the references to London in the lyrics, including many places and people I had never heard of before, were a certain form of escapism for a college kid who was generally unhappy with his physical surroundings. Along with Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys, Marc Almond, David Sylvian, New Order, The Cure, and The Smiths, Saint Etienne, the newest kid on their block, hold a special place in my heart, as they offered something new yet strangely familiar in the world of keyboard driven British pop.

Being a piano student and composer at university, music that featured keyboards and new or interesting sounds that had not previously been mixed on record was extremely important to me. I could appreciate bands like Ministry and Nine Inch Nails for their production savvy and development of the industrial sound, though I was not really a fan of super aggressive music. Etienne brought a warmth and optimism to everything they touched, and I think it is safe to say that bands like Air and Goldfrapp (in retro mode) would have sounded very different without their influence. Sarah Cracknell was the perfect muse for two quiet guys who liked to experiment in the studio, and together they wrote some of the most engaging songs of the past 20 years.

Foxbase Alpha was an incredible collage of found sounds and dialogue with great songs. Most people who have this album remember "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" (which does not feature Sarah--she was yet to join), and "Nothing Can Stop Us". However, there are several beguiling album songs that connect the dots like a fantastic painting. "Carnt Sleep" is so full of atmosphere, you could cut the air around its echo filled rhythm track, reminiscent of Sade, but containing so much more menace. "Spring" lightens the mood a bit, only to drift back to the mysterious with "She's the One" and the rousing-yet-dreamy "People Get Real". They even had the audacity to put an eight minute instrumental, "Stoned to Say the Least", in the MIDDLE of the album! "London Belongs to Me" is absolutely stunning--a blissful sunkissed sound they would return to many times throughout their career (see the epic "How We Used to Live" from Sound of Water ten years later). "Like the Swallow", another eight minute epic, deserves special mention as a song which defies categorization in aura and scope. This is why albums are SO IMPORTANT.

So Tough was even broader and more accomplished, functioning as a soundtrack to an imagined movie. Who else would open a record with a sprightly track like "Mario's Cafe", only to follow it with an instrumental like "Railway Jam"? The songs that follow--"Calico", "Avenue", "You're in a Bad Way", and "Hobart Paving"...need I say more? One of the best first halves of an album EVER. The second half is more experimental and atmospheric (great for rainy days), and they bring everything home with the wry and ingeneous bonus, "Join Our Club". Who wouldn't want to?

Tiger Bay may be my favorite album of all the Etienne albums. While there were two different versions released on either side of the Atlantic, I prefer the British version with the "Western Wind"/"Tankerville" medley featuring the ever-so-wonderful Stephen Duffy on guest vocals. Tiger Bay has all the atmosphere of the previous two albums, but there are much fewer samples and more fleshed out arrangements, especially in the singles "Pale Movie" and "Hug My Soul". The band said they were trying to make their own version of Fairport Convention's Liege & Lief, which comes across in what may be my all-time favorite Etienne song, "Former Lover", a strummed acousitc-guitar stunner, and the lovely "Marble Lions". These songs would have never made it as singles, so thankfully there is an album format here for Etienne to explore this side of their personality. The US edition adds "I Was Born on Christmas Day", which doesn't really fit, but it IS a great single. ("Who Do You Think You Are" possibly their most immediate single, preceded this album, and surprisingly did not feature on it.)

Etienne took a bit of a break in the mid-90's, releasing the great compilation, Continental, only in Japan. It featured one of their best dance singles, "He's On the Phone", and another great song, "Burnt Out Car", which was so great, they remixed and released it as a single over a decade later. Two favorites of mine were SE's interpretation of Gary Numan's "Stormtrooper in Drag" as dark eurodisco, and the heartbreaking acoustic ballad, "Lonesome". "Angel" also got a major overhaul for their remix album, Casino Classics. Continental is really just as good as any other Etienne album, so it still remains a mystery to me why it was not released worldwide.

Good Humor put Etienne back on the map in 98, with "Sylvie" being a particular highlight, as an album track, and in remixed form. The great Fairfax High bonus disc of 11 further tracks turned Good Humor into an even better double album. Sound of Water followed a couple years later, and is full of restrained emotions the way only the British can convey them. Non-single highlights are the lovely "Sycamore" and "Just a Little Overcome". The Interlude CD that followed Sound of Water turned this into a wonderful double album as well.

Finisterre is a highly underrated album in the Etienne songbook, and features one of their very top singles, "Action". I thought of Finisterre as real thinking man's pop, as there are so many moods and styles, with a little something for everyone. "Shower Scene" is great dance-pop akin to "Pale Movie", "Soft Like Me" a giddy hip-hop hippy anthem, and "Amateur" and "New Thing" show their affinity for the electroclash sound that was blooming at the time. Everything on Finisterre is again, very London, and very reminiscent of where they came from on Foxbase Alpha.

Saint Etienne carried their London love to even greater lengths on 2005's Tales from Turnpike House, an all-out masterpiece. The UK and US versions of this album were once again, so very different, while the UK version played like a dawn-till-dusk day in towerblock life, and the US version rearranged songs for maximum pacing and added three new bonus tracks and removed one (the David Essex duet, "Relocate", which many hate, but I find endearing). "Lightning Strikes Twice", "Good Thing", and "Stars Above Us" are the obvious singles, but the addition of some very special vocal harmonies bring tracks like "Sun in my Morning" and "Side Streets" into focus. "Milk Bottle Symphony" is a complete classic with its tempo changes and sweet vignette, while "Slow Down at the Castle" and "Teenage Winter" are songs only Saint Etienne could have written. It closes with the lovely acappella of "Goodnight", and at little over two minutes, they leave me wanting so much more.

Which brings us to the present. As I said before, "Method of Modern Love" is an amazing song, deserving of such a higher chart placing than it will get in England (come on people...Etienne are yours!), and even though they did not write it, it has easily inserted itself in the Saint Etienne canon as a wonderful and important addition. The driving "This is Tomorrow" is more reminiscent of their darker side (think "Like a Motorway"). They were both produced by studio wizard, Richard X (Rachel Stevens, Annie, Pet Shop Boys), and he is apparantly in charge of remixing and remastering parts of Etienne's backcatalogue, with Foxbase Alpha appearing in early summer 2009. If his work here is any indication, I cannot wait to hear what he has done with these classic albums.

Saint Etienne have never nor will they ever be household names, especially outside of the UK. However, fans can be found in the darndest places, as they are literally everywhere. That is one reason why Etienne can play almost anywhere and people will come out of the woodwork to see them. While their music is a unique escape from a rather bland world, their universal appeal shows how many of us have, at one time or are currently, continuing to escape our mundane lives. We could have it so much better...