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Review: Saint Etienne – Words and Music by Saint Etienne
Published on April 27th, 2012 | Jonny Abrams
Saint Etienne’s first studio album since 2005’s sublime Tales from Turnpike House is a rather confusing affair, the musical equivalent of a top chef knocking up a Big Mac and fries but leaving just enough traces of flair – a sprig of coriander here, a dash of cumin there – so as to leave you in no doubt of where it’s all coming from. How exactly we feel about it may not become clear for a while, but it would be a dereliction of journalistic duty not to get in there quickly with the new album of a band we greatly admire, so here is a mishmash of early musings.
Opener “Over the Border” lays bare the running lyrical theme – as outlined to Rocksucker by Bob Stanley in last month’s interview – of how music affects you at various stages of your life, Sarah Cracknell’s typically alluring spoken word turn telling of kids going on a trip to visit Peter Gabriel’s house and using Top of the Pops as a “world atlas” as lush, minor-key acoustic fingerpicking renders it all as dreamily nostalgic as prime Pulp.
“The strange and important sound of the synthesiser” is deployed in a relatively restrained manner, a simple beat and singalong pop chorus keeping things ticking over pleasantly until the sucker-punch line “and when I was married and had kids, would Mark Bolan still be so important?” sets the tone quite majestically. One can only surmise that, yes, Bolan and co. are still of considerable importance to this enduring trio.
Forthcoming second single “I’ve Got Your Music” could fool a dispassionate ear into thinking it to be a slice of Identikit chart fodder from the ’80s or ’90s, but closer inspection brings those aural spices to the fore, thus elevating the whole; it’s subtly melodic, cheesy of synth but with just the right kind of bounce to induce involuntary rhythmic movements from the listener, and ultimately successful by dint of another fabulously catchy chorus.
This could barely be more different from the sophisticated, early-’70s Beach Boys harmonies of Tales from Turnpike House, and indeed the sleek, sexy adult-pop of 2002’s Finisterre. It’s deceptively ballsy insomuch as this kind of thing could fall flat on its face in the wrong hands, but in the hands of Saint Etienne it’s hard to imagine that the various clichéd bells and whistles (including an old-school vocoder) are not knowing allusions to electro-pop smash hits from bygone eras. Knowing, but not mocking; this is pastiche without the piss-taking, and that all-embracing fondness is actually pretty charming.
House-y piano takes a wrong turn into minor-key balladry on the ensuing “Heading for the Fair”, its inoffensive, slow-stepping dance (yes, ‘dance’!) beat a fine platform for Cracknell’s splendidly breathy delivery, and then “Last Days of Disco” cranks it all up a notch with a deliciously jazzy/sassy electric piano chord progression, over which unpretentious lyricism once again suggests that this could either be a big hit now or conceivably one from the archives. The more they pull this off the more impressive it becomes, but concepts aside this is a splendid track in its own right.
First single “Tonight” captures the excitement of going out to see one of your favourite bands (“Maybe they’ll open with an album track / Or a top-five hit, no turning back”), a crystalline production again giving a good home to what should be dated-sounding synthery. By now this avenue has become pleasingly confounding, an unexpected cause for questioning your own musical tastes and judgements, but there remains the discomforting notion that this is basically a superior version of Sophie Ellis-Bextor. And therein, you could argue, lies the crux: in other words, is that a bad thing? Any which way, it could easily have been a big hit with the right exposure, and no-one could begrudge Saint Etienne a renewed dalliance with mass appeal.
The slow, shimmering and wondrously euphoric “Answer Song” makes a bold claim for stand-out status, even managing to rhyme “baby” and “maybe” without getting on the nerves. It’s utterly dreamy, like some kind of enraptured skank, and it segues consummately into “Record Doctor”, a brief a capella ditty extolling the healing powers of music.
“Popular” is another that charms in spite of itself and all the reasons you may look for to dislike it, the chorus refrain of “All I wanna talk about is touch me touch me / All I wanna hear about is squeeze me squeeze me / One time, two time, three time and again” admittedly not much to look at on paper but fully deserving of squatters’ rights in anyone’s hippocampus.
“25 Years” reintroduces the minor-key fingerpicking and brings about a sudden and jarring intrusion of mortality awareness with “I’ve got 25 years, maybe more if I’m lucky”; “DJ” is brooding but fairly uneventful, a less effective version of much of the rest of the album; “When I Was 17″ (not a Frank Sinatra cover!) is pleasingly plinky with its subtle melodic shifts, and home to the universal line “when I was 17 I thought I knew everything”, while “I Threw It All Away” provides a welcome change of setting with its ruefully pretty/prettily rueful take on chamber-pop, the doleful flute and thoughtful pace certainly more in tune with Björk or Elbow than Ellis-Bextor or the like.
Curtain-closer “Haunted Jukebox” is naturally steeped in nostalgia and an appreciation of music’s power to trigger memories, melancholic and reflective enough to be a suitable thematic cap on the album yet musically maybe not quite the big ol’ blow-out that “I Threw It All Away” raised hopes for. Meddling with expectations? Perhaps that’s the whole point.
By Christmas, Words and Music by Saint Etienne may well have unravelled sufficiently to feature prominently amongst our very favourite albums of 2012, but for now it’s an intriguing curio which only sporadically matches the high standards that Cracknell, Stanley and Pete Wiggs have repeatedly set for themselves. Still, it’s quite remarkable for such a straightforward-seeming album to elicit such an exploration and inquisition of self; and if that conclusion strikes you as being unnecessarily academic, we may well have proved our own point in some roundabout way.
Rocksucker says: Three and a Half Quails (with another itching to crack open its egg) out of Five!
Words and Music by Saint Etienne will be released on 21st May by Heavenly Recordings. For more information, including a list of live dates, please visit www.saintetienne.com or the band’s Facebook page.