Music News

Saint Etienne

Was there ever a more beloved yet underappreciated combo than Saint Etienne? Well, sure; pop's endless highway is littered with yesterday's papers, musical roadkill too classy and talented for the general populace. And that includes the hipster indie sector -- of whom, it must be said, can be as fickle as postpubescent teen consumers when it comes to anointing, then discarding, its own breed of royalty -- and its endless parade of Cult Heroes.

Saint Etienne, now enjoying its 10th anniversary in the biz, is currently regarded in its native Britain as somewhat above the career confines of cult-herodom but well below stock pop royalty. Record collectors love 'em, and coffee overachievers eagerly drop the St. E name into conversations about, oh, Brian Wilson or crispy old French songsmith Michel Polnareff, two pop icons to whom the trio (dusky chanteuse Sarah Cracknell plus geeky sonic architects Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley) has made clear its allegiance on tribute albums. And it's not unusual to hear a Spice Girl or a Cardigan waxing eloquently about the Etienne dance-pop inspiration, Cracknell's cheeky continentalia in particular making her something of a cross between Dusty Springfield and Mireille Mathieu for the post-rave Britpop generation. On these shores, however, that dreaded "C" word is the operative one, the occasional gay disco appreciation night notwithstanding.

Which is why former grunge maven Sub Pop's involvement in the group's career arc is all the more appropriate; some bands simply deserve to be taken seriously, cultdom be damned. The label's interest seems sincere, having extended now through two full-lengths (1998's Good Humor and last year's Sound of Water). Interlude is billed as "the flip side of Sound of Water." The liner notes go on to explain that Cracknell, Wiggs and Stanley "were at their most prolific in the Spring and Summer of '99 -- starting some twenty-odd songs and fine-tuning ten favorites for their aquiline fifth long-player. And what of the others? They're good, and too good to remain unheard."

Indeed. Compiling St. E leftovers has become a sport of sort for the group; there are at least three highly desirable Japanese-only collections. Such compilations routinely hold their own against the main show, and Interlude includes 12 tracks (plus a long and short version of the video for "How We Used to Live" in the nicely designed enhanced component of the disc) exquisitely sequenced and served up for the not-so-casual Etienne collector contingent, among which your scribe proudly counts himself.

Included are such intriguing delights as "Bar Conscience" (a dreamy, surreal electronic soundscape, originally a B-side to SOW's "Heart Failed"), "Shoot Out the Lights" (an undulating, kicky slice of lounge-pop -- not a Richard Thompson cover, although that would have been a treat -- that turned up both as a bonus track on the Japanese SOW and the B-side of "Boy Is Crying") and "Stevie" (the gently pulsing Brian Wilson tribute album track, notable for Wilson fans because the tune, a nod to the erstwhile Fleetwood Mac goddess, has to date only surfaced on bootlegs).

Included, too, are several unreleased gems, including the delicate Bacharach-esque stylings of "Queen of Polythene" and a curious concoction, "Le Ballade de Saint Etienne," whose Mellotron, vibraphone, echoey guitars and breathy French vocals from Cracknell suggest a cross between the Moody Blues, High Llamas and aforementioned French diva Mathieu.

There's also a nine-minute dance remix included, for Good Humor's "Lose That Girl," courtesy of U.K. klub kings Trouser Enthusiasts. (Fans eagerly swap pirated copies of the DJs' white-label compilations, which have included startling deconstructions of Pet Shop Boys, Sunscreem and both Kylie "the Queen" and Danni "the Slut" Minogue.) Some of St. E's finest moments have arrived via remixers, and "Lose That Girl," with its shimmery patina of trance glossadelica and sleek-for-sleekness's sake dynamic crests, is as mesmerizing as a barrelful of dancing queens. With sultry Cracknell leading the charge to heat up the dance club, and the Wiggs-Stanley-Trousers army employing a scorched-floor policy in her wake, the tune is yet another bankable Etienne casino classic. Mama mia!

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Fred Mills