Album Review: Saint Etienne - Words And Music By Saint Etienne

17 June 2012 | 3:57 pm | Andrew Mast

The sounds here can evoke an innocent pop era of Cliff Richard on roller skates or... also dabbled in are chillwave and electrofolk.

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Saint Etienne exist in a parallel musicverse where radio plays pretty chart tunes of pop, soul, dance, rock and indie persuasions. The UK trio have never been in fashion but have always been uniquely fashionable. For over two decades they have existed in a pop vortex that saw them flirt briefly with fame in the mid-'90s when their seemingly naive mix of swinging London melodies and post-rave beats frolicked into the right place at the right time.

But in our world radio doesn't play this pop - especially a wide-eyed pop that honours Neil Young as an equal of David Essex. Especially a pop that believes Xenomania dance mixes go hand-in-hand with geographical documentaries (Finesterre, 2003) and concept albums about the residents of a tower block (Tales From Turnpike House, 2005).

And so, to the genteel British trio's first album in seven years - a celebration of that magical faraway musical universe they populate. Words And Music By Saint Etienne consists of words about their pop life and music that recreates the pop they have been immersed in. Within the first five minutes we hear of the childhood intrigue with older Peter Gabriel-obsessives (not Peter Gabriel himself, but his fans), their first single bought (from Woolies in 1974), memorising charts and reading Smash Hits. That story, Over The Border, also lists early musical likes ("I just wanted to listen to Dexys, New Order, anything on Postcard") while lamenting the teenage romance the music soundtracked ("I knew he was in love, he must be, he made me a mix tape").

From pop lyric love to clubbing lust, DJ follows the musical life cycle through young adulthood: "She wakes up in the morning, the tune's still inside her head, he said he'd call on Saturday and take her to the club again." At album's end they fade away with the echoed cry of "haunted... haunted... haunted". Haunted Jukebox is the inevitable reminiscence of late adulthood, albeit without too much regret: "Ghosts of an ancient song seem to hide in many places, bringing back so many faces." [They also manage a nod to The Smiths.]

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The sounds here can evoke an innocent pop era of Cliff Richard on roller skates (I've Got Your Music) or even Captain & Tennille (Answer Song). Timeless Saint Etienne modes of music are dabbled in: chillwave (Last Days Of Disco); Kylie pop (Popular, co-written by Rob Davis of Can't Get You Out Of My Head fame); piano house (Heading For The Fair) and electrofolk (I Threw It All Away).

While synthesiser underlies every moment here in an unobtrusive way (never encroaching on the hushed vocals of Sarah Cracknell), the band pay tribute to their instrument of choice where they can. "They say that we're in love with synthesizers," boasts Cracknell in Tonight as well pointing out"the strange and important sound of the synthesizer" in Over The Border. [Also paying respect to the masters of '90s synth anthems KLF in Popular, slipping 3am Eternal into a string of pop song title lyrics - alongside Hold Me Close, Mississippi and Jack Your Body.]

Although this album is about history, it never feels out-of-step. Rather, Saint Etienne reveal our universe's radio to be the one full of anachronistic words and music.