Saint Etienne, “Good Humor / Fairfax High”


(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #60 – released September 8, 1998)

Track listing: Woodcabin / Sylvie / Split Screen / Mr. Donut / Goodnight Jack / Lose That Girl / The Bad Photographer / Been So Long / Postman / Erica America / Dutch TV / Hill Street Connection / Hit the Brakes / Madeleine / Swim Swam Swim / 4:35 In The Morning / Clark County Record Fair / Zipcode / My Name Is Vlaovic / Afraid to Go Home / La La La / Cat Nap

After putting out three studio albums in as many years, another four would pass before Saint Etienne finally released their next one. That’s not to say they were entirely inactive during this sabbatical; they did release numerous compilations including a greatest hits album (which featured “He’s On The Phone”, their recent one-off, highest-charting UK single), a Japanese-only odds-and-sods collection and a pretty great solo effort from vocalist Sarah Cracknell (even more tracks from this period eventually surfaced on various fan club-only releases.)

One doesn’t necessarily have to hear the bulk of this output in order to understand how the band redefined its sound between Tiger Bay and Good Humor (for the most part, it’s not readily available to download or stream, particularly in the US), although for fans, it fills in the gaps between the former’s cinematic, genre-bending soundscapes and the latter’s more refined approach. Better to view the relatively stripped-down Good Humor as a back-to-basics record, a homage to the late ’60s/early ’70s AM radio pop group members Bob Stanley, Pete Wiggs and Cracknell cut their teeth on. With producer Tore Johansson, best known for his work for Swedish lounge-poppers The Cardigans, Saint Etienne made an album not too far away from the likes of “Lovefool”, that other group’s big hit from the previous year.

Good Humor generally opts for a live band sound, which stands in direct contrast to their past studio-centric output. Opener “Woodcabin” eases into this style with an isolated, mechanical-like rhythm that may or may not be a drum machine. Then, a funk bassline kicks in, followed by jazzy Fender Rhodes electric piano, acoustic guitar and muted trumpet filigrees. However, it no longer resembles a Cardigans song once Cracknell’s inimitable vocals appear. She elongates syllables to their breaking points on the verses (rendering “A beauty queen from Idaho,” as “a beauuu-tee queeeen (pause) from Iiii-da-hoe”) before arriving at the chilled-out chorus: “Never write a ballad / got to get a grip now / cause nothing ever matters / if you hide away from it all.” That last phrase, along with the overall laid-back vibe, places them in a far cozier setting than ever before.

The album’s lead single “Sylvie” promptly returns them to the dancefloor. An ABBA-worthy Eurodisco anthem, it falls comfortably in line with such past uptempo hits as “Join Our Club” and “Pale Movie” and yet, it’s different. None of those past hits, for instance, had a minute-plus long instrumental intro, with nearly thirty seconds of solo piano previewing the song’s entire melody before being replaced by frenetic congas. The piano then shifts to an enticing samba-like rhythm, and the drum machines and synths soon kick in. When Cracknell’s vocals finally appear, you’re immersed in such a peculiar way that you feel you know the song, but that there’s also more yet to be revealed.

Cracknell sings to the titular woman who has just stolen her man, “Sylvie, girl, I’m a very patient person / but I’ll have to shut you down / if you don’t give up your flirting.” She follows this with one of the song’s many hooks, the taunting but knowing “You know he’s mine, you know he’s mine.” It’s not until the final verse that she reveals Sylvie is no mere schoolyard rival, but rather poignantly her own little sister. “Give it all up ’cause I know you’ve been trying / over and over and over and over again,” she sings, blissfully repeating those last words unto infinity as the song swells and sighs. I remember either Stanley or Wiggs once called “Sylvie” a ’90s update of Yvonne Elliman’s Saturday Night Fever chestnut “If I Can’t Have You”; I can’t think of a more apt comparison.

Although Good Humor is unfathomable without “Sylvie”, it’s an outlier here; “Split Screen” is more what the album’s about. Coming off like an upbeat, ultra-groovy ’70s sitcom theme, complete with horns and shimmering vibes, the song sounds tailor-made for swanky cocktail parties and suburban backyard picnics, but it’s no background music—not with Cracknell breaking free from a staid relationship, singing with glee on the breathtaking, key-changing bridge, “Now I really don’t care / ’cause I’m dying to get the sun in my hair.”

While on their earlier records the contrast between her vocals and the mashed-up soundscapes enveloping them was a key part of the band’s appeal, Good Humor’s more organic arrangements fit Cracknell like a hand-knit glove. On “Lose That Girl” (musically a very close cousin to Rumors-era Christine McVie), she’s delectably catty, picking apart a friend’s recent ex-lover with savage but fair precision (“She thought she’d look good in purple jeans from Santa Fe”, she observes), making perhaps the most damning accusation one could in the world of Saint Etienne: “On her radio, she turned the disco down.” (!) Conversely, she’s just as convincingly wistful on “Been So Long” and melancholy on the gorgeously downbeat “Postman”, where her “ba, ba, ba’s” speak as much about her emotional well-being as lyrics such as, “I was only lonely / only thinking of you.”

Much of Good Humor plays like an extended K-Tel compilation of some of the band’s greatest and not necessarily hippest influences. With its luxuriant Barry White wah-wah guitar hook and hypnotic hi-hats, “Erica America” would fit right at home on a Soul Train couples dance segment. “Been So Long” is as well-constructed as Radio City-era Big Star and as winsome as The Carpenters (although a tad less syrupy) to almost resemble contemporaries Belle and Sebastian. “Dutch TV” lovingly emulates Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown music (although no Peanuts special would ever include the lyric, “Turn the TV down, kick the TV in.”) In addition to being a perfect snapshot of an indie British band on tour in the USA, “Mr. Donut” is a blatant late-Beatles pastiche, all “Strawberry Fields Forever”-esque Mellotron and “Your Mother Should Know”-like fat fingers piano. Still, not even McCartney could come up with lyrics as endearingly daft as the song’s opening lines: “Checked into the airport half an hour late / Jackie caused a scene when we reached the gate / Sorry, Mr. Pilot, but you’ll have to wait / cause Paul’s still in the duty-free.”

Although the band’s most approachable record to date, it’s also occasionally as adventurous as their past efforts. It’s not hard to see why “The Bad Photographer” was picked as the album’s second single—from how it opens with an instrumental version of its bridge to the indelible “All for you” vocal hook in the chorus, it’s instantly hummable. The lyrics, on the other hand, are Saint Etienne at their most fascinatingly inscrutable, detailing a photo shoot and its aftermath, but observing it both in the first-person and at a distance. “Some secret / must keep it /hey, I wouldn’t know who to tell,” goes one verse; later, Cracknell sings, “Days later / saw the paper / how did I fall for you?” Some vital information is left out between that gap (perhaps the secret?) and half the fun is trying to figure it out (while the other half is finding yourself singing along with her every word.)

“Goodnight Jack” could almost have fit in on Tiger Bay with its striking intro of cascading lone guitar notes eventually subsumed by an almost symphonic backing slowly building in volume. Although the lyrics are somewhat more lucid than those on “The Bad Photographer” (“Can I take this once again / You know I’d like to be a friend,”), the structure is anything but. After a few verses, the song shifts into an extended coda spiced with flutes and faux-harpsichord and Cracknell singing “She’s got to run / run away from home,” over and over again. For all of Good Humor’s tendency towards three-minute potential radio hits, it doesn’t completely obscure the leftfield experiments and studio-as-playground logic of their back catalog.

Regardless, Good Humor was enough of a departure that a chunk of the band’s UK fanbase was left cold by what was a warmer and, to many ears, more American-sounding album. Accordingly, it managed the none-too-grave task of reestablishing Saint Etienne in the US, where it likely remains their best-selling release. While their first three albums came out here on Capitol (who botched Tiger Bay’s release with an alternate tracklisting and poor promotion), this one was released by Sub Pop, the famous indie label home at one time to Nirvana, Sonic Youth and The Shins. The mere idea of this very British pop trio being signed to a label heavily associated with grunge and alt-rock is a bit droll, but Sub Pop’s boutique size and independent ethos was far closer in spirit to their likeminded British label, Creation.

Still, Good Humor’s eleven songs only tell part of the album’s story in the US. Having arrived a few months after the UK release, the first 10,000 copies on Sub Pop came with a bonus disc, Fairfax High, which collected eleven more tracks, mostly B-sides from the “Sylvie” and “The Bad Photographer” UK singles. While very few would argue they comprise as sturdy a selection as what’s on the main album, it’s strong enough to suggest that, perhaps, given a little more fine-tuning, Good Humor could have very well ended up a decent double album.

While nothing on Fairfax High comes close to the effervescent rush of “Sylvie”, that’s okay. Apart from isolated uptempo numbers like “Zipcode” and “Hit the Brakes”, this is more music to put on after coming home from the party. Two of the best songs are acoustic ballads one could reasonably describe as twee: “Madeleine” has one of the prettiest melodies of any Saint Etienne song, with Cracknell backed by little more than acoustic piano and guitar, while the disarming “Clark County Record Fair” is the sort of love song only two record-collecting nerds like Stanley and Wiggs would ever write. Surely good enough to have fit on Good Humor, the gentle trip-hop of “4:35 In The Morning” was probably relegated here due to its evocative title; “La La La” doesn’t reach quite such heights (as one can surmise by its title) although it’s not much lesser than Ivy’s comparable “Ba Ba Ba”.

If anything, Fairfax High was instrumental in encouraging me to appreciate, well, instrumentals, of which it has four. Opener “Hill Street Connection” (named for its brief interpolation of Mike Post’s Hill Street Blues theme) mists over you like a lush, refreshing summer rain; closer “Cat Nap”, heavily reminiscent of the ‘60s instrumental piano hit “Last Date” has the opposite effect, gently, agreeably lulling one to sleep. “Swim Swam Swim” floats on by with irresistible ease on a raft of piano chords, flutes, “ba, ba, ba’s” and a simple shuffling rhythm; “My Name is Vlaovic” similarly lopes along a repeated, circular melody, only with an air of intrigue straight out of a ‘60s spy film. They all work as background music (or even Muzak, if you prefer) and yet the craft and attention to detail in each one enables the listener to curiously remain absorbed—a trick the band might have learned from Brian Eno.

Good Humor is one of those records that registered with me instantly (that I had just discovered the band the previous year and anticipated it madly certainly helped), but it didn’t take long for me to love Fairfax High as well. For a time, this combo was my favorite Saint Etienne album. It remains in my top five of their voluminous catalog and is a solid entry point for newcomers to the band; if it lacks the ambition and forever-pushing-forward momentum of the band’s greatest works (So Tough, Tiger Bay, and one other album to come in this project), it’s no less delightful a listen. Make yourself a cup of ginger tea, curl up on a comfortable seat, and enjoy.

Next: Lift up your hands.