For a band starting their third decade of making music together, Saint Etienne certainly sound like they aren’t getting any older. In fact, these British stalwarts, appear ready and poised for another run around the dance floor. By pure accident, I’ve been following this group from their early days. I remember hearing their curious retro 60s pop sounding Foxbase Alpha on the local college radio station in my teen years. (Also, it doesn’t hurt that I’m a bit of an audio Anglophile. If the word “Brit” precedes “pop”, “rock” or “dance” or you’ve got an accent of the Isles, I’ll probably be a fan.) The band then faded from my radar until early 2000 when they released Sound of Water, a marked shift towards a mellow, down-tempo sound. One could definitely hear on this and ensuing records the influence of trip-hop and ambient music, which had become immensely pervasive and popular in the UK and Europe. The follow up record Finisterre followed in the same vein but started to get more experimental in its song structures. Again, despite liking these records, I again lost track of the band until their most recent release, Words and Music.
“Tonight, when the lights are going down, I will surrender to the sound, and look at all the kids around. Tonight the sound is breaking like a wave, wish it could always feel this way and life will never be the same” – from “Tonight”
In the interest of full disclosure, I don’t think this album will appeal to everyone, not because it is “too out there”, but because it is a nostalgia inspiring, time-capsule record. Words and Music is mesmerizing because it turns the clock back to the sound of 90s Brit-pop dance music scene. If you grew up with an affinity for synth-heavy, dance-oriented groups like Yaz, Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, Everything But the Girl, and Depeche Mode or even female pop sensations like Lisa Stanfield (still obsessed with “All Around the World”), then this record will please your ears. In other words, there is a good chance that if you didn’t grow up in the 80s or didn’t have an awkward teenage obsession with all things English, then you might find this odd and confusing. But, then again, if you like poppy, dance music that isn’t all bass, computer generated beats, or house, you should definitely allow Saint Etienne to offer you a glimpse into what dance music sounded like before raves. (By the way, I also have a place in my heart for those other forms of dance music too.)
The record isn’t all club numbers, see the curiously pleasant Burt Bacharach, 70s Brit-pop tinged “Answer Song”. But in my opinion, the most captivating tracks definitely inspire the need to get your dancing shoes on, such as “I’ve Got Your Music”, “Tonight”, “Popular”, and “DJ”. (I am really hoping there will be a Paul Oakenfold or Norman Cook (aka Fatboy Slim) remix of some of these tracks to bring back more 90s dance figures!) Perhaps in keeping with the retro-sounding nature of the album, Saint Etienne also pays homage to their musical inspirations throughout the record. The opening track “Over the Border” is essentially an ode to the narrator’s musical coming of age and journey through the music of the 70s. The underlying music is absolutely gorgeous and textbook Saint Etienne, a mix of an up-beat dance tempo with a dream-pop feel that is accentuated by Sarah Cracknell’s lush and spellbinding vocals. I will concede that the spoken narrative might appeal to only the most geeky music types; the folks who can relate to obsessing in their bedroom over radio shows and tiny independent labels as kids. Personally, I love when she recounts how her friends drove to Peter Gabriel‘s house, “Peter Gabriel from Genesis”, because it so clearly evokes a time before Peter Gabriel was a musical icon in his own right. Or, her reference to wondering whether Marc Bolan (aka T.Rex) would mean as much to her when she was married with kids. In many ways, “Over the Border” is a fitting introduction to a record about falling in love, falling in love with music, and how that music becomes a social glue for communities and a shared discourse among diverse sets of people. Also, the entire album is a testament to the lasting power of beats and lyrics, and how they inspire and, literally, move us to previously unknown joys and euphoria. But, perhaps, I am just being nostalgic for the music of my youth? Let’s just say, I rarely encounter a dance song to which I don’t want to groove. Like Deee-Lite said, “I just want to hear a good beat.”
Words and Music moves me, does it move you? To Listen to Words and Music by Saint Etienne in its entirety, click here.