[2 December 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The late 1990s found Saint Etienne desperate to escape from a world of their own making. Prior to forming the band, founders Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley had backgrounds in music journalism. In the liner notes to earlier releases in this extensive reissue series, they stress the scope and eclecticism of their tastes in music. But Saint Etienne’s first three albums, though well-received critically, had left the band subject to the one practice self-respecting music journalists loath the most. Saint Etienne were being pigeonholed.
Their very eclecticism combined with reverence for classic pop, anything-goes attitude toward sampling, and parochial themes, had created for Stanley, Wiggs, and singer Sarah Cracknell an insular world with a signature sound. All three albums, Foxbase Alpha (1991), So Tough (1993), and Tiger Bay (1994) were commercially successful in their native UK. A redoubtable singles collection, Too Young to Die (1995), seemed to put closure on the first, uncomfortably well-defined phase of their career. Now it was time for something else.
First came a split with American label Warner Brothers, who had never viewed the band as more than a dance act and had badly mishandled Tiger Bay. A hodgepodge pseudo-album, Continental, saw the light of day in Japan only. Cracknell, frustrated with her limited role in the songwriting process, released a solo album in 1997. Despite the odds, the band decamped to Sweden to start a new era. Cracknell was made a full writing partner. For the first time, they put themselves completely in the hands of an outside producer, Tore Johansson. Also for the first time, they worked with a consistent full band in the studio, including future Doves guitarist Jez Williams. The American spelling of Good Humor, minus the British “u”, was cited by Cracknell as a deliberate attempt to break with the band’s parochial image. Most likely, as with So Tough, it was an American reference via Wiggs and Stanley’s favorites, the Beach Boys. “Good Humor Man”, a reference to the American ice cream brand, was a mooted title for an early Brian Wilson composition, and Wilson is seen wearing a Good Humor cap on the inner sleeve of 1970’s Sunflower album. Maybe the title was Wiggs and Stanley’s subtle hint that while things were going to change, the band weren’t going to throw their core ethos out with the bathwater.
Johansson was known for his work with the Cardigans, who had just had major success in America with “Lovefool”. He definitely left his mark on Good Humor. Ironically or not, the album sounds more European than anything. The deep, often mechanical rhythms of the past are replaced with simpler, more organic ones. The single “Sylvie” comes closest to a straight dance track, but most of Good Humor has the clean, sometimes brittle sound of indie-pop, or “twee” pop. The bookends, the nonchalantly soulful “Woodcabin” and Fender Rhodes-led “Dutch TV”, reveal a cozy warmth beneath the stripped-down sound. In between, things are a bit more distant, though Cracknell’s inviting, unadorned coo always makes you feel like she’s telling you a secret. “The Bad Photographer” finds the most indelibly Brian Wilson-informed sweet spot, and “Postman” and “Erica America” are lush yet down-to-earth. The melodies here don’t hit you in the euphoric way of “Nothing Can Stop Us” or “Hug My Soul”, but you sense that’s by design. Good Humor lacks the transportive quality of Saint Etienne’s previous efforts, but the very worst you can say about it is at times it sounds too much like the Cardigans.
In America, Saint Etienne turned heads by signing with Sub Pop, the one-time grunge mecca. Sub Pop sweetened the pot for fans by including the 11-track Fairfax High as a bonus disc. Collecting b-sides from the period and included in its entirety on this Deluxe Edition, it’s an even more inviting experience than the album proper. Though most tracks are from the Good Humor sessions, the endearing eclecticism and anything-goes wit are more apparent. The gorgeous, delicate ballad “Madeline” recalls the neo-folk parts of Tiger Bay. “Swim Swan Swim” is whimsical electronica, while “Hit the Brakes” and “Zipcode” are punchy pop. The Deluxe Edition adds still more tracks, including the très Beach Boys “Jack Lemmon”. The sole previously unreleased track is “Do You Love Me”, a fine reminder of Saint Etienne’s fondness for vintage girl-group pop. Though not as consistent or balanced, the bonus disc is truer to Saint Etienne’s first few albums. It provides you what the best pop music can, a means of escape.
Somewhat surprisingly, Good Humor turned out to be less commercially successful than its predecessors. Perhaps that’s why Saint Etienne decided to go all-in with experimentalism for their next studio album, Sound of Water (2000), either the best or most frustrating of their albums, depending on individual taste. Eventually, the band found their way back toward where they started, with Finisterre in 2002. The insularity was once again comforting, the songwriting evocative yet sharp. It was as if Saint Etienne realized there was little point in asking people to “Join Our Club”, as they did on an early single, if they didn’t want to be a part of it themselves.
In this context, Tales From Turnpike House (2005) served as a near-perfect means of providing closure to Saint Etienne’s recorded career. It had been seven years since Saint Etienne’s last UK hit single, and a record buying public transfixed by Crazy Frog and Coldplay couldn’t be bothered. Tales From Turnpike House‘s complete commercial failure is probably why these Deluxe Editions of past efforts, rather than new material, are now Saint Etienne’s focal point. But , though the tawdry cover art almost begged for it, the album did not deserve its fate.
Sounding like a belated follow-up to Tiger Bay, Tales From Turnpike House is a loose concept album based around life in a block of middle-class flats in London. It’s a smooth, concise, slightly updated distillation of the folk/pop/dance aspects of the first three albums, only less ethereal, and with a nothing-left-to-lose directness evidenced by the Brian Wilson-like harmonies arranged and sung by British veteran Tony Rivers. Perhaps in a last stab at career vitality, the band brought in of-the-moment production team Xenomania for two tracks, “Lightning Strikes Twice” and “Stars Above Us”, both of them simple techno-pop disco-ball delights. Elsewhere, “Side Streets” is a memorably sunny bit of bossa nova while “Slow Down at the Castle” is folk-pop with a riveting coda. “Teenage Winter” is the ideal denouement for Saint Etienne. In spoken-word, Cracknell details the melancholy life of a teenage dreamer, saving up and buying things on Ebay only to stuff them in a drawer and forget about them. It must have been a bit how Saint Etienne felt. With a beautiful, sweeping chorus, “Teenage Winter” is like the heartbreaking end result of all the hope and promise the band had detailed on “Mario’s Café” thirteen years earlier.
Where the bonus disc buoys Good Humor, it weighs Takes From Turnpike House down. Sadly, Up the Wooden Hills, the delightful children-aimed ep included with the original UK issue, is not here. Most of the tracks are previously unreleased, and you can hear why. They’re not bad, just generally a group of unfinished sketches and instrumentals. Only the techo-rockabilly of “Another Cup of Coffee”, the almost Buzzcocks-like “You Can Judge a Book By Its Cover”, and disco “Missing Persons Bureau” are ones you’ll want to replay.
The series of Deluxe Edition reissues have no doubt provided some consolation for Saint Etienne and fans alike. It seems just that they’ve been issued with a major label and proper promotion, and have put some much-deserved attention back on the band. Maybe this will convince Wiggs, Stanley, and Cracknell to head back into the studio. Saint Etienne may no longer be too young to die. They’re just too darn good to.