Halfway Through 2017: Albums

Say what you want about 2017 being shit so far, ‘cause it decidedly is not where music’s concerned (or TV, for that matter—consider Twin Peaks, Legion and The Americans, just for starters.) In the unlikely event that I come across no other good new albums between now and December, the ones listed below from the year’s first half would make for a pretty darn tootin’ top ten.

Of course, some gurls are better than others. I admire Stephin Merritt’s quintuple-LP opus more than I ever get around to playing the damn thing, and while the Mann record is easily her best since Bachelor # 2, I have to be in a certain mood for it. I’m genuinely surprised at how much I enjoy Goths (perhaps because it’s far more Donald Fagen than Robert Smith?) and Hot Thoughts, although I shouldn’t be because I tend to love exactly every other Spoon LP for some reason (see: Transference, Gimme Fiction and Girls Can Tell.)

Predictably, the Saint Etienne is my favorite so far. Even though I’ve had less than a month to live with their growing-up-in-suburban-London opus Home Counties, my god, what a month… Not only is it already better than the very good Words and Music, I’m thinking this might end up… their best yet? Will this ultimately ring true or will I eventually burn out on it? Check back in six months—in the meantime, enjoy the sublime “Out of My Mind”, which at the very least deserves more than only 300+ YouTube views.

My favorite 2017 albums so far, in alphabetical order:

Aimee Mann, Mental Illness
Alison Moyet, Other
Future Islands, The Far Field
Goldfrapp, Silver Eye
Jens Lekman, Life Will See You Now
Laura Marling, Semper Femina
The Magnetic Fields, 50 Song Memoir
The Mountain Goats, Goths
Saint Etienne, Home Counties
Spoon, Hot Thoughts

Saint Etienne, “Good Humor / Fairfax High”

good-humor

(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.

“Sylvie”:

“Madeleine”:

Saint Etienne, “Tiger Bay”

Tiger_Bay_original_album_cover

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #41 – released February 28, 1994)

Track listing: Urban Clearway / Former Lover / Hug My Soul / Like A Motorway / On The Shore / Marble Lions / Pale Movie / Cool Kids of Death / Western Wind – Tankerville / The Boy Scouts of America

“Urban Clearway”, the opening salvo of London trio Saint Etienne’s third album suggests that it will be a very different beast from the first two. Granted, Fox Base Alpha and So Tough had their share of atmospheric, pulsating electronic instrumentals, but they were hidden behind simpler pleasures like a dance cover of a Neil Young song or a neighborhood café narrative that unambiguously invited listeners into its world. Tiger Bay, on the other hand, introduces itself via a barrage of mechanical rhythms straight out of the Kraftwerk songbook (or Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”).

Then, at 1:16, it curves left as a cornucopia of real strings, woodwinds and harp glissandos all make nice on top of the synthesizers—the song’s heretofore monochrome world has just opened up considerably, now resembling a exuberant version of an imagined late ‘70s action/adventure TV theme (Charlie’s Angels? Hart To Hart?). Perhaps “Urban Clearway” is, at its core, opening credits music for this, the most cinematic of all Saint Etienne albums—it even shares its title with a 1959 Hayley Mills film. But then, the song curves left again, from major to minor key in the final minute. What kind of movie is this? Certainly not a fluffy comedy. Perhaps a kitchen sink drama? Maybe even an epic?

After the adrenaline rush of “Urban Clearway” comes its almost polar opposite: a hushed folk song. “Former Lover” begins with four strummed Spanish guitar chords, each of them slowly plucked so one can hear every single note they contain. Then, the guitar plays a rapid succession of five-note arpeggios over which we hear a sighing harmonica and pining vocalist Sarah Cracknell, who provides the melody via lyrics doled out in simple, Zen-like phrases (“Milan, when I was a kitten”, “Close all of the doors, Maisie”). The transition from the first track to the next nearly induces whiplash, but “Former Lover” is secretly the yang to the previous song’s yin.

Throughout their first three albums, Saint Etienne seemingly pride themselves on what startling juxtaposes they can come up with between (and often within) songs; a majority of Tiger Bay plays like proto folk-tronica, like an imagined collaboration between such disparate souls as Fairport Convention and Gary Numan. However, it’s still pop music and by itself, “Former Lover” is striking in both its somberness and melodicism and for the cozy melancholy it instantly conjures: curling up in a comfy chair, staring out a window, rain gently falling, its narrator delicately, arrestingly lost in thought and reverie.

Tiger Bay’s next two songs were also among its three singles. “Hug My Soul” sports even lusher orchestration than “Urban Clearway”, especially in its opening string fanfare. But Saint Etienne are still primarily an indie dance band (Wikipedia’s catch-all phrase for them) at this point in their career, and the song’s disco beat defines it. Faintly reminiscent of the old Andrea True Connection hit “More, More, More”, it pursues the same end (sex, natch) but via a kinder, gentler, but no less lustful means. By stretching out each world in the chorus almost to its breaking point (“I’ll… be… there…”) before getting to the song’s title, she makes her move but seems almost nonchalant about doing so, and thus all the more irresistible. It’s one of the album’s catchiest, classiest songs, but also atypical top 40 fare—for instance, what other ’94 pop hits featured a luxurious vibraphone solo?

“Like A Motorway” is somehow even catchier and further out there. Switching back from live strings to full-on electronica, its lengthy, instrumental intro positions it as a companion piece to “Urban Clearway”—that is, until Cracknell appears, sighing the song’s main hook (“He’s gone”) into an analog synth cavern. What follows is one of the more sublime and enigmatic songs in the band’s catalog. On the surface, it’s simply another vaguely Latin-accented tale of a former lover, a man who has just left a woman, but she’s not the singer. While Cracknell empathizes with her, she’s also observing from a distance. It all feels like an Antonioni film, with lengthy instrumental passages occasionally broken up by such musings as, “She said her life was like a motorway / dull gray and long, until he came along.” Whereas “Hug My Soul” looked ahead in anticipation, “Like A Motorway” stares in the opposite direction, pondering what has occurred, trying to cull meaning from the past.

A departure from previous Saint Etienne releases in that it less resembles a sample-heavy mix tape with bits and pieces of pop culture effluvia serving as the glue holding all of it together, Tiger Bay is more of an actual ten-track song album. Although it eschews samples (mostly for string arrangements), it has three instrumentals (possibly four, depending on whether you isolate “Tankerville” from the medley it forms with “Western Wind”), the second of which, “On The Shore” returns to the band’s original concept of using a series of guest vocalists. Shara Nelson (best known for Massive Attack’s “Unfinished Sympathy”) lends her soulful wail to a cod-reggae backing track that’s gently buoyed along by an insistent, two-note staccato filigree and occasional string and oboe interjections. Pretty and pleasant and not at all profound, it works well enough as a breath of fresh air between two far more serious tracks.

“Marble Lions” patiently lies in waiting on the other side. At first a return to the whispered elegance of “Former Lover”, it builds slowly, but from the onset is far more direct. Cracknell sings, “Everybody wants something and I want it all,” but not in a bratty way—more like in awe of the world and all its possibilities. “Stars are calling, goodnight, darling; don’t say goodbye” goes the gentle chorus; with it, Cracknell (who co-wrote the song with Michael Bund) appears to be praying for this special moment to endure for as long as it can. When the full orchestra appears after two minimally arranged verses of isolated electric guitar, flute and oboe, the effect is the same as in “Urban Clearway”, everything coming to life at once. Both antidotes to the existential despair of “Like A Motorway”, “On the Shore” and “Marble Lions” take comfort in the here and now: they are calm oases no matter how brief, as essential to life (or any narrative) as breathing.

The third of the album’s singles (but the first one to be released), “Pale Movie” is Tiger Bay’s most Euro-sounding track (band member Bob Stanley described as “a pastiche of a Spanish folk song”), and, with its florid orchestration, on-the-nose flamenco guitar and insistent disco beat, also its most dated song (although it actually pre-dated the whole Ricky Martin/Jennifer Lopez-led Latin pop craze by five years). However, Saint Etienne is one of those rare outfits that excel at being both frothy and cerebral. It’s not difficult to get swept away by the song’s many effusive charms, from the swirling, effervescent “la, la, la” chorus to purposely silly lyrics that name-drop American actress Demi Moore and Nepalese mountaineer Sherpa Tenzing.

If any single theme emerges from Tiger Bay’s diverse collection of sounds and tones, it’s the persistence of movement. Although the album title references a singular place (a Welsh port), its ten tracks form a travelogue of sorts, only more of the mind than any specific locale. It doesn’t matter exactly where the “Urban Clearway” runs or where the “Marble Lions” sit or even if “Tankerville” can be pinpointed on a map; there is even the nagging feeling that not all the album (or possibly any of it) is set in Tiger Bay itself. Instead, each song simply provides an outline for the listener to project his or her own ideas as to what the inhabited landscape is. For example, take “Cool Kids of Death”, a nearly six-minute long electro-dance instrumental. Its chief hooks are house piano chords, Cracknell’s occasional wordless backing vocals and a six-note melodica riff that’s almost a variation of the theme song to The Saint. As with any instrumental, there’s purposely no context apart from the title (and even that was originally meant to be “Cool Kiss of Death”). Still, the track’s relentless pace suggests more than just a placeholder—at best, one can imagine some sort of sustained action occurring; whether it involves the titular figures or not is left up to one’s own imagination.

At least three different versions of Tiger Bay exist. The one surveyed here is the original UK release; a few months later, an American edition (with the band photo on the cover) came out, but with an altered track listing: “Hug My Soul” and “Former Lover” swapped places (I actually prefer this sequencing, only because it works and, as an American, it was the first way I heard it) and “Western Wind/Tankerville” was completely obliterated and replaced with “I Was Born On Christmas Day”, an even frothier track than “Pale Movie” that was a stand-alone UK single the previous December. Rather inexplicably, the album was re-released in the UK in 1996 with an “amplified” track listing that added on four more songs, including “He’s On The Phone”, their highest charting UK hit (#11), first released in late ’95 to accompany the singles collection Too Young To Die.

I didn’t hear the original UK version until it was part of the band’s “deluxe edition” two-disc reissue series of their back catalog in 2009-2010. Previously, I considered Tiger Bay as one of Saint Etienne’s lesser albums; hearing it with “Western Wind/Tankerville” intact, the album suddenly, beautifully, fully resonated. A seven-minute, three-part suite, the track opens with “Former Lover”-like austerity, Cracknell singing what could be a trad-folk melody (“Western wind / when will thou blow?”) over mournful acoustic guitar—all nearly resembling something from The Wicker Man soundtrack. Around the one-minute mark, strings begin slowly fading in, along with a burbling electronic undercurrent. Thirty seconds later, you sense a heavy Serge Gainsbourg influence with the arrival of a full orchestra (complete with harp glissando) and a beat that anticipates trip-hop (a genre that will start deeply permeating 100 Albums in a few entries). This is the instrumental “Tankerville” portion of the song. Unhurriedly flowing like a glass-eyed stream but punctuated by dramatic orchestral flourishes, it continues until the last minute when “Western Wind” reappears, only in a slightly more foreboding key. What wasn’t exactly lighthearted at the beginning ends rather ominously with Cracknell and guest vocalist Stephen Duffy reprising the opening melody and lyrics as the trip-hop beat and orchestration quietly continue, only joined by a faint, siren-like noise.

When preceded by “I Was Born on Christmas Day”, “The Boy Scouts of America” makes precious little sense. However, with “Western Wind/Tankerville” as its lead in, it registers more clearly as part of Tiger Bay’s overall design. A lingering wisp of a song, it depicts a narrative about a boy who “has to keep guard” over a girl who “lies in bed” in a house in Paraguay. We never learn what he’s protecting her from, only that “God has derailed the Lonestar train / that could take her away from sadness and pain.” Cracknell relays the simplistic melody in her beguiling, childlike voice as the opulent, John Barry-esque orchestration seems less pop song than almost folk murder-ballad designed specifically for the stage or screen. At the final verse, she enigmatically concludes, “The Boy Scouts of America taught him all that he knows.” The strings linger a bit, and then fade out into the ether. The album closes as effectively and dramatically as it began.

Tiger Bay was such a departure for Saint Etienne that it likely baffled a lot of the band’s UK fans (the botched American release had nary an impact on their standing in the States.) Like So Tough, it entered the top ten, but plummeted rapidly down the charts. Perhaps in response to this public indifference (and also exhaustion from having recorded three albums in as many years), the band took a four-year sabbatical; we’ll catch up with them when they return with their fourth album—yet another departure, albeit a radically different one from So Tough to Tiger Bay.

Up next: A singular voice seeking no sentimental prisons, no political churches.

“Urban Clearway”:

 

“Former Lover”:

Saint Etienne, “So Tough”

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”:

 

“Avenue”: