Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Music Box: Saint Etienne

I can remember the minute I first fell for Saint Etienne like it was yesterday. It was spring 1992 and I was whizzing through Westwood Village in my white convertible Rabbit having just picked up my new Dunlop Max 200G (Steffi's weapon of choice, with the new paint job), fresh from the pro shop on Gayley Avenue near UCLA. The radio, as always, was tuned into KROQ when this hypnotic Euro beat came blaring over the speakers and an angelic voice started singing about love and loss: "I have a friend I've never seen/He hides his head inside a dream/Someone should call him and see if he can come out/Try to lose the down that he's found."


The DJ said the song was "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" by a new British band called Saint Etienne and, in an instant, I'd found my new "favorite band ever." I turned right and headed west toward Santa Monica to pay a visit to the Moby Disc on Wilshire Boulevard. In a clear moment of kismet, a pristine (but deeply discounted) used copy of "Foxbase Alpha," the debut album by this fascinating new group (whose name I was instantly drawn to thanks to a teenage obsession with France) was sitting near the entrance. (I was making about 23 grand a year in those days, so new CDs were a luxury reserved for special occasions, like "Def, Dumb & Blonde" or the Phil Spector box set.) The picture on the front didn't match any of the people on the back, but I quickly figured out the two guys with bangs and Charlie Brown shirts (hey, I know that look!) and a strikingly glamorous blond gal were the band. Although it would be years before I'd even realize that this blonde -- the ridiculously talented Sarah Cracknell -- hadn't even provided the vocals to the song that lured me in (she hadn't joined the band yet, which started off as a conceptual outfit between former journalists Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs), or that it was a Neil Young cover (I only knew his CSN&Y stuff at that point), my love affair with Saint Etienne is still going strong, my indisputable favorite band of the post-80s era.


Like most great loves, my relationship with Saint Etienne has gone through a number of stages. There was a time when I found their first three albums to be decidedly uneven. Being the pop purist that I am, I wanted every song to be another "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" or"Nothing Can Stop Us" or "Kiss and Make Up." But as Stephen Thomas Erlewine explained it, this trio's concept was more complex, fusing the British pop sounds of '60s London with the club/dance rhythms and productions that defined the post-acid house England of the early '90s. As such, their early works featured lots of quirky samples, dreamy instrumentals and random movie clips ("I'm from the United States of kiss my ass." -- can you name that one?). So when "Too Young to Die: Singles 1990-1995" came out, with 14 FLAWLESS pop gems in a row minus all of the accoutrements, I'd died and gone to heaven. The remix album, "Casino Classics," and Japan-only rarities set, "Continental," followed. Then in 1998 they released the comeback of sorts, "Good Humour," their most straightforward album to date, and it quickly became my fave "non greatest hits" album. "The Misadventures of Saint Etienne" (an unused soundtrack for a Parker Posey film) kind of split the difference, with some of the band's best compositions to date, along with some enjoyable atmospheric pieces.

By the time the new century rolled around, I'd seen the band in concert a half-dozen times or so (unquestionably my favorite live band ever, with a fan base that is more hard-core than that of any other band I've ever seen) and I began to revisit their early works. It was at that point I began to more fully appreciate "Foxbase Alpha," "So Tough," and "Tiger Bay," realizing that the "distractions" weren't just filler, but part of a grand scheme and artistic experience requiring my complete attention.

Even after all this time, what I find most striking about Saint Etienne is that unlike so many other artists, who seem to struggle to come up with 10 or 12 songs every few years -- some of which are obvious filler, these Brits have a never-ending supply of brilliant ideas, which almost allows them to put out album after album, bonus track after bonus track, fan-club-only CDs, vinyl singles, film soundtracks, covers, Christmas collections, solo projects and countless collaborations. Sometimes I'll be listening to one of their "throwaway" CD single "b" sides and think to myself what Madonna or Debbie Harry or Britney Spears would give to have JUST ONE SONG as good as this for their next album. Sadly, I'm getting the impression that the ever-shrinking music industry is slowly starting to exact a toll on a "cult" band like Saint Etienne, as their ratio of "best of" albums is steadily becoming disproportionate to their number of proper releases. (This is NOT the band's doing as they confess to major embarrassment of it all on their splendid Web site.) Still, they make the most of the circumstance. The band spiced up "London Conversations: The Best of Saint Etienne," the umpteenth "hits" collection, with the new single, "Method of Modern Love," a slick dance track fans are calling their best yet. What I'm eager for now is another concert visit (was that really three years ago that they were last here?). The trio's in their 40s now and won't be around forever. But some 20 years later, they still seem to only get better with age.

"Method of Modern Love": Hall and Oates only wish!


"He's on the Phone": Their "gayest" hit to date


"Hobart Paving": a wedding essential


  • Read all Music Box posts HERE.


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    10 comments:

    Marcus said...

    Something about that first St Etienne single evokes strong memories -- it was an air-conditioned basement, early summer, in adolescence and I was still quite ignorant about things like Neil Young. I remember thinking that this band had created a song that seemed to defy categorization or description (other than "I love this").

    Thanks for the reminiscent post.

    Marc Lallanilla said...

    Great post. I've been a huge fan of this under-appreciated band ever since my friend Orlando (whom you would love -- he has all 794 of their CDs) turned me on to "Like a Motorway," which is their absolute best song. Ever.

    Thomas said...

    You've just answered so many questions for me! "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" is listed as "Cyberraga" on the Music album I downloaded (via torrent) a couple years ago. It used to confuse the hell out of me when I played that song and it didn't sound anything like Madonna.

    Thank you for clearing that up!

    Anonymous said...

    Aww. Brings back memories of '91, when MARS radio used to play St. Etienne here in LA. That was when we actually had a decent radio station.

    nojarama said...

    LOVE LOVE LOVE all things St. Etienne!

    Chris MCB said...

    I'm glad you know Saint Etienne.
    Interesting fact: He's on the Phone is not only their 'gayest' hit but it's their biggest getting to #11 on the UK charts.

    You should have put 'Sylvie' in the post. That was what won me over. Before then all I had heard was 'Nothing Can Stop Us Now'. I still regret not seeing them when they played here but wasn't a big fan back then only just starting to appreciate.

    I love 'Method of Modern Love' but my goodness if they haven't borrowed heavily from Kylie's 'The One'. 'This is Tomorrow' should have been the lead single off 'London Conversations'.

    bernin said...

    great post, thank you. i'm a huge saint etienne fan too, and listening to their old tracks, especially anything from foxbase alpha, brings back the fondest memories. i agree with the comparison to kylie's the one. to me this song sounds like a cross between the one and the carpenters. it's those woah-woah-woahs. has anyone heard the cola boy mix? now *that* really brings back memories - sounds just like 7 ways to love!

    Kenneth Walsh said...

    Mmm, I don't really hear the Kylie "The One" comparison beyond both sounding like excited dance pop. "Method" has a waaaaay better hook. (And isn't accusing anyone of "borrowing" from Kylie the ultimate pot calling the kettle black, anyway?!)

    Kylie did, however, do a harmless job covering Saint Etienne's "Nothing Can Stop Us" HERE.

    Marc: You are SO RIGHT about "Like a Motorway" being the absolute best song EVER. Too bad there's no non-live video available on YouTube or I surely would have used it.

    Rob said...

    a great band. . . My favs were mostly on So Tough -- Mario's Cafe, You're in a Bad Way, and Join Our Club a 60s inspired fan motivator a la "Hey Hey We're the Monkeys"

    Anonymous said...

    I beg to differ.

    I turned 40 last Autumn. And i think "they're in their 40s and won't last forever" is crap. I'm smarter, stronger, and more a) cynical; b) open minded; and c) better than you.

    Popular music has redefined ageism in the last decade or so. SE very well may outlive you. Watch your back, babe.

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