Review Summary: We all want to kiss the sky; join our club, we're going to try.
Saint Etienne are a purist pop band. Well, no, they’re not, but many would have had you believe that in the early 90s. Back then Sarah Cracknell had just hooked up with music journalists Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs and together gave the world their first real taste of their specific style of lounge pop meets acid washed, ambient house music. All recorded under a certain veil of self-awareness associated with Indie Rock, Cracknell (and a few others) routinely delivering lyrics in the form of ripe cynicisms or twisted anecdotes -- with a voice as sweet as honey. Their debut, the brilliant Fox Base Alpha
mixed all of the above with a bevy of classic movie samples, spacey interludes and a sense of serious peace and love. When they finally ditched their early sound, the deliberately cheesy back-beats and synths of bad house, for more lively strings and horns, mixing ambient pop and R&B, they struck a chord. The next few years saw them follow up their success with Fox Base Alpha
by enlisting Sarah as the full time vocalist, initially in a bidding war for the position, touring vastly, being followed by NME relentlessly -- oh, and dropping another ridiculously good LP.
Sophomore release So Tough
offered up the same style of loungey-electro pop, sample heavy, with a whole lot of warm beats. But this time they sound is more fleshed out, with heavy holds in doo-wop, classic Motown as well as trip-hop; slower paced, and dirtier almost, but it works brilliantly. The darker path they take gives way to more experimentation, experimentation, that thankfully works. In lesser hands, the spoken word, rap verses on trip-hop bangers “Calico” and “Junk The Morgue” could seem, well, lame as ***. But Stanley and Wiggs can make a beat and Cracknell is a superb vocalist. Seemingly menacing and sexy at the same time, both songs deliver in the fullest sense, offering up juicy, while atmospheric pop that’s sopping with hooks. Really though, if judging by hooks alone, “Mario’s Café,” “You’re In A Bad Way,” “Leafhound,” “Join Our Club” and “Conchita Martinez” would all be in contention for the top. These songs giving clear indication to the hand Saint Etienne had in creating the indie-dance
craze. Each being infectiously hip-shaking, but still filled with clever lyrics, a diverse assortment of instruments and bit of feedback. The thing about Saint Etienne though, is amongst all those booming beats and high-flying pop hooks they always found time to slow things down a bit, giving us down-to-earth yet epic ambient masterpieces. So Tough
though, found the band taking it’s first real stab at a “standardized” ballad, akin more to chamber pop than anything else they’d recorded, but nevertheless handled with the same class and care.
The aforementioned ballads being the biggest evidence of this change in Etienne’s flight plan on So Tough
. “Hobart Paving,” “No Rainbows For Me” and the gorgeous 7 minute epic “Avenue” all present a different, more delicate side of the band. More delicate in the sense of pacing, Saint Etienne were certainly never known for sounding harsh, but these songs most certainly stood out in their catalogue at that point. “Hobart’s,” soft piano and strings, building slowly as Cracknell croons in the forefront. The nearly heartbreaking space-pop of “…Rainbows,” Sarah delivering diatribes of languid love in a half-hearted whisper, sounding as broken as the lyrics: I'm going for myself/so I tell myself/But there's no pot of gold/just shades of blue
; it’s quite gorgeous. “Avenue” is a completely different creature though, molding together the soft pace of these ballads with all the epic electronic grandeur of their best ambient songs, topped off with an infectious chorus, it’s the album’s highlight. Not to take anything away from the upbeat tracks, they're just as memorable and beautiful, but the hat must be tipped towards the more tender songs. There’s just something that feels right about this band making lovely ballads, and could be why they chose to go down a more ambient and experimental route as their career moved on. But So Tough
will always be a prime example of what they brought to the table for dance music -- contagious sugary pop, wrapped up in lounge stylings and hippie ideals all back by some serious beats. In fact, it’s pretty safe to say it was the
would probably have done fine to just rinse and repeat the formula of the debut, but Saint Etienne wanted more, specifically to become a band as opposed to a pop collective. With an initial rotating door policy when it came to lead singers, it was hard to listen to Fox Base Alpha
and not comprehend it as a collection of tracks. Basically, on record, Saint Etienne seemed like DJs as opposed to a real band. With So Tough
Sarah became their official, and only lead, and took over a good portion of the lyrical writing duties. This cementing of her as a vital artistic portion of their sound (that’s a 6 year-old Cracknell on the cover by the way) gave their sophomore release grounding, each track feeling purposeful in the flow of the album, as opposed to the party happening because of it. So Tough
is simply tracked like a pop album, where as Fox Base Alpha
played like a DJ set, and this dedication to pacing adds just that much more to album once you’ve reached it’s final note. That being said So Tough
is a superb album, all at once an excellent follow-up, delivering on a debut’s promise and offering that much more by evolving their sound into something truly unique and beautiful.