So with the photo post the other day, I suppose the 90s gauntlet has been thrown. It’s true. While I enjoyed my life in the 90s [actually more than I can say about the 80s, really] the one point of no comparison was when it came to new bands. My long term enjoyment of UK bands was definitely on the rocks as the late 80s rave culture was still dominant in the music scene. Following the mid 80s flowering of the NWOBJP, the ecstatic flow of UK club music on the underground side vied with the PWL steamroller to almost universally repel my normally inquisitive ears. It seemed to be music of a time of diminished expectations. In that sense, it perfectly reflected its zeitgeist.
It was during this time that I became a Francophile for a good seven years… At least until the French discovered hip hop! The new English bands that appealed to me the entire decade, can be counted on the fingers of a single hand. Of a woodworker… with bad judgement. I had bought the occasional album by English pop acts in 1990. A group like The Sundays was a perfect example. Not a bad album. I bought it on import long before they got signed to whatever label they had in The States. But one album of them was enough for my Record Cell. Not enough there there to bring me back for extra helpings. Multiply that experience by ten years, and you’ll have a good idea of what British music meant to me around that time.
In 1991, I managed to hear the first new UK act in about five years that managed to attract my attention. I spent a lot of time in my car listening to WPRK-FM, which continued to be the only radio station in Central Florida that didn’t repel me. My car only had a cassette deck and I had not made any cassette tapes in six years of buying CDs, so any tapes I had were of older music. I generally relied on WPRK for my in-car entertainment. It was there that I chanced to hear St. Etienne. I later bought a copy of their debut album, “Fox Base Alpha.”
The band had some traits of the indie dance era that I had not really found terribly appealing. Sampling had gone off the rails by the mid-80s, and the ambient house scene often featured samples used in a non-musical context to provide the emotional vibe that was otherwise lacking in the faceless music being ground out like sausages. So there were a lot of samples bitten from films everywhere. Sampling, which had begun with the impossible sheen of utter modernism in 1980, had by 1991, calcified into an entirely regressive technique that was only looking backward. What hooks can we bite from old records?
I can’t say that St. Etienne were head and shoulders above this way of thinking, at least musically. They proffered an album with gentle house beats and drum machines, with plenty of atmospheric samples. The production style of the album was certainly of its era. What distinguished the album were several factors. Firstly, the vibe here was unabashedly retro with late 60s soul music being a strong thread running through the album even thought the chatter of drum machines and samples were right up front. The nostalgic air that pop scientists Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs cultivated here had a heavy air of melancholia swirled through it all, giving me something a little more than could be found in the less emotional records that sounded, on the face of them. not wholly dissimilar to this one.
Secondly, the ratio of non-musical atmosphere to actual songs was just about right. This was the era where sampling collage began to overtake music as an expressive form. This would peak in the mid-late 90s with things I’d hear on WPRK being non-musical sampling collage with little musical content. At the end of the day, such efforts don’t connect with me emotionally. They are too abstract for me to bond with them. Here there were tracks like “Wilson” which were solely looped film dialogue over a beatbox. Tracks were bookended with samples taken from a wide variety of sources to add a sort of greek chorus to the album. There was enough of this to provide au courant novelty without taking up space better saved for music.
Finally, with main vocalist Sarah Cracknell, they found a lady who can hit the Motown/Philly Soul vibe with a mannered air of nonchalance that was simultaneously intimate yet ultimately cool. One got the thought that Sarah Cracknell was singing to/for herself even if she was addressing someone in the lyrics. But that’s okay. The effect on many of these songs makes me think I am listening to a Post-Modern remix of a group like The Three Degrees. It attains a vibe of sounding second hand even when the song in question brand new. The bittersweet nostalgia [especially reflected in the samples and the packaging of the discs themselves] is utterly endemic to the Saint Etienne sound. It’s comforting sounds in the wrong container that aren’t quite a perfect fit for them. The dissonance created makes them ultimately interesting.
Do I collect Saint Etienne? Absolutely not! I’m not made of money! I don’t even have all of their easy to get albums. I have “Fox Base Alpha,” “So Tough,” “Tiger Bay,” Good Humor” and “Tales Of Turnpike House.” My favorite was “Good Humor” due to the band moving away from the indie dance tropes that they waltzed in on and focusing more on what I would call classic songwriting. The band have an impossibly deep and detailed discography with as many fannish nooks and crannies as main tributaries. One could go deeply into debt trying to have everything. It’s a sign of moderation of my collector’s sickness that I can enjoy Saint Etienne without feeling the need to “have it all” as I so often do. If I see a Saint Etienne CD at a good [and <$5.00 is always good in my book…] price, then chances are I will purchase it.
The only rarities I have in the Record Cell are the band’s debut CD single with the far superior early Donna Savage vocal version of “Kiss And Make Up” and a US promo CD5 of “Stars Above Us” US remixes from “Tales Of Turnpike House.” I also have the US solo album “Lipslide” and “Kelly’s Locker” EP from Sarah Cracknell which managed to be almost as good as a Saint Etienne release, so good for her. I also have the conceptually perfect Saint Etienne Daho EP “Reserection,” where long time Francophile favorite Etienne Daho collaborated with the band on a five track EP, with one song being an English version of his “Week-End à Rome.”
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I hope Elastica is #2 or #3!
Steve – Tune in next time and find out! Same Monk Time! Same Monk Channel!
St Etienne was a one of the few acts from the 90’s that became a core act for my collection – and yes, I was a completionist until the great mix bust of 94/95 when it all became dull soulless dance music). The first four albums are a really respectable start to a career, especially the UK edition of Tiger Bay which is just a solidly good album from start to end (and the b-sides from that era are good, too). I’d like to see them receive more than a drive-by 90’s accolade page.
Saint Etienne have been a musical blessing for well on 25 years now. From the opening drum and keyboards of Only Love Can Break Your Heart to the widescreen pop of Stars Above Us or the 60’s pastiche of Hug My Soul and You’re In A Bad Way and the dance floor pulse of Burnt Out Car or I’ve Got Your Music, Bob Stanley, Pete Wiggs and Sarah Cracknell have provided me with great satisfaction and musical pleasure. Bob Stanley is one of us…a musical trainspotter, fully conversant in Pop Music through the generations. No where is this more on display in the opener to 2012’s Words And Music By – Over The Border. It’s a song who’s lyrics will hit home to any music fan brought up on 70’s/80’s music and trends. It’s also one of Sarah Cracknell’s most beautiful vocals.
I can also recommend Cracknell’s second solo effort – 2015’s Red Kite. It isn’t miles away from Saint Etienne, but she shines!
oh hoo-ray! the Monk and Taffy have yet another band of common interest. While I do gloss over the 90’s as pretty dire musically, if I ignore grunge, nu-metal, the rise of TRL teen-pop (Britney, you have so much to answer for!) et al, I did fall in love several times that decade. First and foremost – yup, Sarah, Bob and Pete. Sublime dance-pop which felt shiny and new yet steeped in nostalgia…I own every album, every fan club special release, and have seen them every time a tour would take them through Boston. Haven’t heard Red Kite yet, but am anxiously awaiting my order.
Monk, you’ll be hearing from me as I reveal my top three 90’s Brit acts as you do. Maybe we’ll have more overlap. I wouldn’t be surprised if we do.
Taffy – Vas Ist TRL? Wow! You have all of the fan club releases? That’s as much as their commercial canon, it seems!
Suffice to say Monk, the fact that you DON’T get the TRL reference is a VERY good thing!
Hey Monk…read up to fill in the gaps of your music knowledge! Or not, you might have better thing to do with your life, like unclog a drain.
Taffy – Ewww! Was that some MTV 90s nonsense that I gratefully missed? I seem to recall seeing that title somewhere. One had to bail from mainstream MTV by 1985, in truth to avoid the toxicity. It was pretty good for the first few years, though. Once Bruce Springsteen and metal bands started making videos? Game over!
Saint Etienne was one of those bands I knew of from the singles (I remember “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” coming out), but never got around to picking their stuff up until recently. They’re definitely one of those quirky little trios that slips under the radar in the States. Lovely stuff.
I’m assuming you’ve read Bob Stanley’s book ‘Yeah Yeah Yeah’? Definitely one of my favorite rock bios, if only because he pretty much put into words exactly how I see the relationship between pop’s past and present.
Have to agree I’ve been enjoying Yeah Yeah Yeah in measured reads. Stanley is a Pop historian with his own contributions to that history to boot!
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Jon Chaisson – Saint Etienne are definitely a cult act here, but I heard them from the beginning, thanx to college radio. I would love to read Stanley’s book! No time for old fashioned “reading” in the new 48 hour work week, though.
I love Saint Etienne and have most of their studio albums and a handful of cd singles,including the two Cola Boy releases.
I particularly enjoy their later film score work,Finisterre in particular.I attended the UK premiere of this with live score by the band at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival many aeons ago.Front row,it was spectacular.Recently acquired the magnificent DVD set of the films,’A London Trilogy’.
You should really complete your collection with “Sound of Water”, “Finisterre” and most definitely “Words and Music by”. They might not be flawless (although the last one almost is) but they all have some carreer highlights. “How we used to live”, “Heart failed in a back of taxi”, “Shower Scene”…all amazing!
StellaVista – I await the arrival of any and all Saint Etienne into the Record Cell. All I need to do is find them.
I’ve discovered that my slow as hell ten year old scanner/printer plays really well with windows 10 and have kickstarted my project of scanning the liner notes from deluxe edition cd’s. The old eyes are not what they used to be and it’s much easier reading these on my computer in a larger font than it is to read the little 5″ square booklets.
I’m two sets into the Saint Etienne deluxe ones and have rejiggered the order of the booklets (30 pages each) so that the text about the parent album is all together and then the photos and credits follow. It’s coming along pretty good so far. Once these are done I have to revisit the PSB deluxers, I did the initial run years ago but they had the nerve to release several more sets since then.
On a related note to Saint Etienne, occasional co-vocalist Debsey Wilkes has some albums out under the moniker Birdie. I bought the first one and it’s alright, there’s some St. Et. DNA in it. I am considering the second one, the samples on Amazon sound stronger than the first one. I hear some Swing Out Sister/Burt Bacharach/Vince Guaraldi DNA in this hybrid.