Saint Etienne, “So Tough”


(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #37 – released March 9, 1993)

Track listing: Mario’s Cafe / Railway Jam / Date With Spelman / Calico / Avenue / You’re In A Bad Way / Memo To Pricey / Hobart Paving / Leafhound / Clock Milk / Conchita Martinez / No Rainbows For Me / Here Come Clown Feet / Junk The Morgue / Chicken Soup 

My first year in Boston, the day before Thanksgiving: I’m braving the chilly air, escaping my box-like Allston apartment to explore the city, my true new home. At Boomerang’s, an AIDS Action charity thrift store (the now long-gone, exceptionally spacious location on Canal Street near North Station), I pick up a cut-out-bin cassette of British trio Saint Etienne’s nearly five-year-old second album, along with a few others (including Prefab Sprout’s Jordan: The Comeback). Upon leaving the store, I put So Tough into my Sony Walkman, and set off on foot towards the North End.

The first sounds I hear are a lone sigh and a man speaking, “Cigarettes… a cup of tea, a bun,” followed by a rapid crescendo of ambient noise (people in motion, forks clinking against plates) that’s abruptly replaced with house piano chords and a woman’s childlike voice singing a wordless hook. The rhythm track kicks in and the first verse begins. The vocalist, Sarah Cracknell, sounds slightly off-key, but charmingly so: she manages to seem bright-eyed and innocent without being overly cutesy or saccharine. The lyrics are a slice-of-life rendering of goings-on at a café in Kentish Town, London, painting a portrait via descriptions like “Squeezy bottles under Pepsi signs”, identifying regulars such as Jackie (who “wants to meet the Glitter Band”) and Dilworth (who is “a strange and lovely man”) and making references to then-current pop culture figures Prince Be (of hippie-rap duo P.M. Dawn) and professional boxer Chris Eubank.

Buoyed upon a stirring string sample, the chorus of “Mario’s Café” ties it all together: “When we meet for a while, Tuesday morning 10:00 AM”. Repeating that line until it becomes a mantra, the song exudes an infectious, beaming optimism that blooms in the chorus’ other key line: “Everyone’s dreaming of all they have to live for.” A flute solo follows the second chorus, and I begin noticing how much Cracknell’s voice resembles it, acting as another element of the entire arrangement rather than an overpowering lead, complementing the other sounds instead of playing on top of them. This reaches its fullest expression at the song’s end, when the rhythm track drops out, leaving only a variation of the sampled strings and Cracknell’s wordless sighs, washed out and blurred like an impressionist painting, as if we were viewing this café, this scene from above and far away, an ordinary moment forever etched in time.

As “Mario’s Café” concluded, physically, I was still in Boston but mentally, I felt like I was in Kentish Town. I’d never even set foot in London (still haven’t eighteen years later), but such is the transformative, hyper-specific power of Saint Etienne’s music that I believed I could practically see, feel and drink in this tiny little corner of the world previously unknown to me. Making my way through the North End’s narrow, hilly side streets and down main drag Hanover, the rest of So Tough affected me similarly, transporting me to such new, unusual yet sonically distinct and evocative places. By the time I hopped on the T back to Allston, trance epic “Junk the Morgue” even seemed to sync up perfectly with the sleek, kinetic motion one experiences riding a subway car, viewing out the window a blur of negative space as one whooshes on by through dark, endless tunnels.

Before we get to the rest of So Tough, some backstory on Saint Etienne. Most days, I consider them my favorite band (no one else will have more entries in 100 Albums) but they also draw a significant proverbial line in the sand in this project’s chronology. Until now, every artist I’ve written about has at least one exceptional musical talent warranting their inclusion here, whether as a vocalist, lyricist, pianist, producer, etc.; that’s not to say Saint Etienne lacks any of those talents (as a singer, Cracknell is on her own distinct plane) but their approach in cultivating them is radically different. The band’s founders, childhood friends Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs aren’t technically proficient musicians—neither one can sing or really play a musical instrument. However, both are fervent music fans, the types one imagines having massive record collections encapsulating everything from hit singles to long-forgotten crate digging obscurities (additionally, Stanley is also a music journalist). Craftily making use of the time period’s newfangled, accessible technology (samplers, drum machines, cheap synthesizers) and studio assistance from engineer/unofficial band member Ian Catt, Stanley and Wiggs took punk and rap’s DIY nature (if not its sound) to heart, proving you could make great pop music if you had the vision (if not necessarily the technique).

Originally conceived as a vehicle with a revolving cast of vocalists (Moira Lambert sings on the band’s first single, an unrecognizable dance cover of Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” which, oddly enough, remains their only charting song in the US), Stanley and Wiggs soon found an ideal permanent front-person in Cracknell. She first appears on Saint Etienne’s glorious third single, “Nothing Can Stop Us” which established the band’s cut-and-paste aesthetic, sounding as if they sampled bits and pieces of a dozen 1960s Dusty Springfield tunes and assembled them into something both familiar and fresh. While UK fans tend to revere the band’s debut album, Fox Base Alpha (1991), to me it’s a little half-baked apart from the aforementioned singles and a few isolated tracks like the lovely “Spring”; perhaps you just had to be there in early ‘90s London to feel and understand what sea change it indicated.

If Fox Base Alpha now scans as the rudimentary effort of music fans trying out ideas and discovering what they could accomplish, So Tough plays like the full actualization of that effort further enhanced by a newfound ambition to see just how far they could take it. The two albums do have a lot in common in terms of structure and content: both include snippets of film dialogue, inside jokes and other sampled sounds placed between the actual tunes, but So Tough is altogether more confident and songful, its transitions more surprising and inspired. With barely a moment of silence throughout its jam-packed duration, it’s less traditional-ten-song-album than grab-bag-mixtape; not everything scales the same heights as “Mario’s Café”, but that’s fine—on a few occasions, So Tough soars even higher than that.

Clocking in at over seven-and-a-half minutes, “Avenue” is the album’s centerpiece and not just for its epic length. It kicks off with a quick thud, as if instantly materializing before us. A faint fog of keyboards and Cracknell cooing, “Ooo-ooo-ooh… your… heart” over and over fades in until the first verse arrives. We hear her sing both the melody (as dictated by the lyrics) and a countermelody of nothing but “bup, bup, ba’s”. The mostly electronic music resembles what would transpire if someone cut up the entirety of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and spat it back out through a sampler. The chorus reprises the opening melody only to resolve in a thrilling, dramatic chord change where Cracknell urgently wails the line, “And, ooooh… oh, the clown’s no good,” stretching out “good” to four yearning, mysterious, blissful syllables.

As “Avenue” proceeds, it keeps revealing new facets, like the sudden, massive crack of thunder after the bridge, placing the song on hold for ten seconds before Cracknell’s “bup bup ba’s” re-emerge and we can move on to the next verse, or the harpsichord break occurring at 4:32, or the faint “woop woop’s” placed under Cracknell’s repeated wail of “Oh, the clown’s no good” beginning at 5:27. As it rises and falls, “Avenue” feels simultaneously unpredictable, dangerous, expansive and transcendent. It eventually fades out only to suddenly return at full blast, the melody obscured/replaced by a mélange of psychedelic sounds that soon vanishes just as quickly, leaving us with a few quietly chirping birds before some dialogue from Billy Liar (“A man could looooooose himself in London!”) brings us into the polar opposite next track, the undemanding, almost deliberately cheesy retro girl-group pop of “You’re In A Bad Way”.

Following “Memo to Pricey”, a non-sequitur 23-second link (basically a pub conversation backed with music from an ancient Chanel No. 5 advert) and dialogue from obscure 1972 film Made (“Do you think a girl should go to bed with fella…”) comes “Hobart Paving”, the album’s other peak. A simple, sparse ballad, it places Cracknell front-and-center singing an almost impossibly beautiful, fragile melody. Lyrically, the song seems to be about a woman waiting on a train platform, leaving someone or something behind (a lover, a family, a childhood home?), but it’s never as clean-cut as the scenario laid out in, say, The Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home”. Instead, Cracknell strings phrases such as “Rain falls like Elvis’ tears,” together with song titles (“No Sugar Tonight”, “Dim all the Lights”) and the repeated line in the chorus, “Baby, don’t forget to catch me.” While the original UK album version sticks to this minimalist piano-and-voice template (along with a harmonica solo), the single version (which also appears on the album’s US edition) adds an orchestral arrangement from cult artist/Brian Wilson-collaborator Van Dyke Parks. Combining synthesizers with real instruments, it enhances the song tenfold, adding complexity without obscuring that which made it so affecting in the first place.

“Avenue” through “Hobart Paving” is the album’s most dynamic section, its two bookends illustrating Saint Etienne’s tendency to respectively create entirely new sonic worlds out of artifacts of (and references to) the past and infuse traditional song structures with their own singular outlook. The rest of So Tough pings back and forth between such extremes, as if to say anything is possible where pop music is concerned.

Naturally, tracks falling on that spectrum’s more experimental end are the ones you notice first. After “Mario’s Café” vanishes into the ether, “Railway Jam” begins with dialogue from the Michael Powell classic Peeping Tom (“I’m Helen Stevens…”) before a doo-wop sample (The Flamingos’ “Golden Teardrops”) appears, the clanging of a passing train gradually consuming it until the rhythm finally kicks in at 1:22; the peculiar, catchy instrumental that follows wouldn’t sound out of place on Brian Eno’s Another Green World (as Robert Christgau has noted). “Conchita Martinez” is even further out there, swerving between a techno rave-up about the titular tennis player and a sampled, 16-bar loop of the deliriously fast guitar hook from Rush’s “Spirit of The Radio” (!). “No Rainbows For Me” would be just a pleasantly dreary ballad if not for Cracknell’s submerged, unintelligible vocal, buried in a soupy arrangement that just seems to hang there like a scene in a David Lynch production. Superficially, “Junk the Morgue” resembles dance floor fodder, a Fox Base Alpha throwback until its sharpness slowly registers in waves—the pulsating beat, the Moroder-like synth washes, Cracknell’s intonation of such enigmatic, impenetrable phrases as “Close your eyes / kiss the future / junk the morgue.”

Still, Saint Etienne’s love of pop comes through just as often as their impulse to experiment. “Calico” isolates Cracknell to repeatedly, effervescently sighing the title world in the chorus, allowing 16-year-old female rapper Q Tee to take the verses. The latter’s distinct tone (perhaps a Brit equivalent to Digable Planets’ Ladybug Mecca) unlocks another door in the band’s universe, while the loping, Middle-Eastern accented melody creates a big enough hook for even the casual listener to hang on to. “Leafhound” is a playful whirlwind of Balearic guitar, orchestral synths and Cracknell’s sweet, conversational tone as she revisits a strangely familiar locale. She reminisces in the chorus, “Something about this place makes me lose a grip on time and space,” phonetically spelling out each syllable as if in awe. The tonal polar opposite of “Hobart Paving”, “Leafhound” cultivates a sense of return and renewal, with Cracknell concluding, “Yes, I know it’s strange / that you could be here with me now,” that last word neatly spiked with exuberance as if sung by the young girl on the album cover (who is actually Cracknell herself).

The original version of So Tough ends with a brief dialogue, presumably back at Mario’s Café (“Chicken Soup”), but the American release adds on “Join Our Club”, which was a UK single the previous year. An ideal album closer, it sums up everything great about Saint Etienne as a pop group, from the descending “ba, ba, ba’s” of its sighing, immediate chorus to its Stevie Wonder and The Lovin’ Spoonful quotes and groovy sitar solo; even if the song title was meant to be a little tongue-in-cheek (hence the lyric, “Teen Spirit is the ‘90s scene!,” six months after Nirvana’s Nevermind), it all scans like an invitation to be part of something new, exciting, different and grand. After hearing So Tough for the first time on that frigid yet sunny Wednesday afternoon, I counted myself a Saint Etienne fan for life.

Next: redemption via solo career.

“Mario’s Cafe”: