Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Saint Etienne. An Appreciation.
Back when the Cardigans mattered, their producer was Tore Johansson. Saint Etienne recorded Good Humor with him at Tambourine Studios in Malmo, Sweden. When this record was released in 1999, I was over 40 and the new millennium was approaching. I didn't give a rat's ass anymore what anyone thought of my musical tastes. I had always listened with pride to the most demanding music of whatever era I was existing in, because I enjoyed being challenged and I didn't want to left out of what was considered the cutting edge. But at this point in my life I was finally in the mood to relax and try something new, fun, and different. I had read a little bit about SE and thought, "I might enjoy this, and it might not kill me." At first I was struck by the sound of the instruments - crunchy, mid-rangey drums, thin, brittle piano, cheesy synths, rubbery bass, and guitars that sounded like they were purchased at a garage sale.
The songs and the stories started to seep into my unconscious, stimulating images and memories - Mrs. Emma Peel, Goddard, Antonioni, Pucci, Quant, the International Style, mods, foreign sports cars, Cannes, James Bond, and Austin Powers. The lyrics, when understandable, referenced films in split screen, a vixenish little sister, teen angst, Dutch hotel rooms, beauty queens from Idaho... I wasn't used to the subject matter - drum 'n' bass didn't have lyrics. The arrangements were fresh but retro, and "very groovy baby!" And there was Sarah Cracknell's voice - frosty, feathery, full of gold dust, but not at all innocent, and not without a certain adult glamour. These songs were short stories about people who might have been real, with ordinary problems, although they were still quite a bit cooler than me.
Who were these people? After eight years of research, I still have no idea how they come up with their tunes, and I don't know who's doing what, except Sarah is obviously singing. In 1990, Bob and Pete, boyhood friends and rugby enthusiasts, melded club beats, indie pop and girl group influences with Northern Soul. They covered a Neil Young song because they booked a studio and hadn't written anything yet. It was a hit. They worked with a couple of singers until they met the divine Sarah, and they were forevermore a trio. Pete is a complete mystery man, but we know he's married and has two small children. Bob has a more public presence because he writes music journalism, and DJ's in New York and London quite often. Sarah eventually got married after having a couple of kids, and produced two solo records of her own smart and estimable dance-pop. They seem like nice people, they're making films with a social conscience, and doing special cultural events at the London ICA. They even perform with orchestras now, all very mature and intellectual, but stimulating fun. Bob and Pete, now over 40 themselves, are still boyishly cute with floppy Beatles haircuts, and Sarah embodies the essence of, well...Sarah-ness, which can best be defined as a genial coolness so natural, that she would be sure to possess it whether she was worshipped by hordes of fans or was simply a stay-at-home mum.
I have seen them play twice, and I'm still not sure what it is they're actually "doing," even when they're with a band. Sarah is the obvious focus, Pete is always very busy behind a synth, Bob is also behind a synth, but doesn't seem too busy, except for smiling and looking into the audience. Bob, to himself on stage: "It's bloody cool being in a band. Oh yeah, and this is MY band, that's even cooler! I wonder who's here tonight. Is that Scarlett Johansson? I think the B part of this song is coming up. What is it I'm supposed to play again? Ah well, Pete will cover for me if I forget." Pete, to himself on stage: "Here comes that B section, Bob is spacing out, I'm going to have to cover his ass again. Why do I have to do everything?? I need a pint." Sarah to herself on stage, oblivious that the upcoming B section is in jeopardy: "The fans here are lovely. I do so enjoy being worshipped." (The preceding is not meant to mock them, it's just my fanciful imaginings.)
Mention should be made, I suppose, of their eccentric production techniques. They indulge themselves in dotting their records with obscure dialogue and audio from British TV and movie soundtracks, and abuse effects such reverb in the tune Avenue, which is interrupted by a thunderclap for no apparent reason. People Get Real has some kind of rubbery engine roar coming and going through the whole song. Like the Beatles, one gets the impression that SE thoroughly enjoy embedding personal references into their work as clues hinting at something the meaning of which continues to evade us. You'll catch some of them, but never all of them, and I think it helps to have grown up in the the UK during the sixties. They dropped the obscure in-jokes for a while, until they released Finisterre. That record features the British actor Michael Jayston dropping non sequitors between tracks that truly choice.
It's hard to imagine that in 1992, while Grunge was raging in the States, Saint Etienne was concocting candy-coated delights such as Nothing Can Stop Us:
Each of their records has a particular sound within its own context. From their original indie-dance-pop beginnings, to 70's-ish soft rock, to organic brittleness, to minimal German synth bleeps, to pumping electro, to whatever it is they're doing next. Plus, each record has its own diversions beyond the style they're working in. Art disguised as simplistic pop. Saint Etienne's output is no challenge to your ears like, let's say Stockhausen, but, more subversively, it will pleasantly haunt your mind for years.