Poor Saint Etienne. Back when they first appeared in the early ’90s, they seemed like the next Pet Shop Boys, a couple of British music journalists (Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs) turned dance-pop master craftsmen, flaunting more hooks than a bait-and-tackle shop on irresistible ear candy like “Nothing Can Stop Us”, “London Belongs to Me” and especially their unlikely hit cover of Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”. Then club music went the way of tweaky trance and techno, and mainstream dance-pop went the way of the Spice Girls, and somewhere in between, Saint Etienne’s delicate blend of retro-acoustic instrumentation and bouncy club beats got lost. Since the mid-’90s they’ve bounced back a little, with fair-to-middling albums like Good Humor and Sound of Water, but even at their best, latter-day Saint Etienne songs sound like a watered-down versions of those blissful early singles.
Now comes Finisterre, the band’s sixth and most sonically confused album yet. At its best, Finisterre finds Saint Etienne exploring new moods within their familiar formula of ’60s acoustic sounds meet ’90s electronica rhythms; at its worst, which is far more often, it clumsily grafts hip-hop and electro-synth on to the group’s increasingly shopworn pop hooks.
Saint Etienne’s single biggest problem hasn’t changed: Sarah Cracknell, while she has her moments, just isn’t a terribly interesting vocalist or lyricist (it’s no coincidence that the best thing Saint Etienne ever recorded, “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”, doesn’t feature her). She has one of those colorless, whispery little girl voices that makes every song sound like a lullaby, and with lyrics like “Because the boys are back in town/And nothing can stop us now” (off “B92”), you sometimes wish she was. The addition of guest vocalists doesn’t help: Rapper Wildflower’s tough girl shtick sounds totally lost amidst the Pizzicato Five-like bubblegum of “Soft Like Me”, and the voiceover transitions between tracks provided by actor Michael Jayston are a huge mistake, either pretentiously pseudopoetic nonsense (“the perverse possibilities of the Barbican”) or witless bon mots (“The world began in Eden . . . and ended in Los Angeles”) that interrupt whatever flow the album might otherwise have had. Sarah Churchill’s spoken word musings on the title track, which closes the album, are better, recalling Beth Orton’s William Orbit collaborations, although the track itself is a dreary retread of ’80s New Wave and art rock sounds.
It would be unfair to write Saint Etienne off altogether on the basis of Finisterre; they do venture into some interesting and uncharacteristically gloomy territory on slower numbers like “Summerisle”, which floats along on a dense cloud of acoustic guitar chords and fuzzy electronic noise, and “The More You Know”, which contrasts Cracknell’s thinly pretty voice with plodding, almost gothlike bass and guitar lines. Mostly, however, their sound has grown increasingly predictable and derivative. Uptempo numbers like “Action” and “Shower Scene”, with their wispy melodies and bouncy dance beats, are undeniably effective, but they’re echoes of past glories, nothing Saint Etienne wasn’t doing better ten years ago. Elsewhere, they take stabs at Air/Zero 7 ambient pop (“Language Lab”) and electro-synth revivalism (“Amateur”, “New Thing”), but they can’t seem to infuse these styles with much energy or originality, either.
The sad thing about Saint Etienne’s long, slow descent into mediocrity is that without them, it’s arguable that a lot of Britain’s currently thriving pop-electronica scene wouldn’t exist. You can hear echoes of Saint Etienne in the music of everyone from Groove Armada to Bent to Lemon Jelly; the problem is, they’re all doing better, more interesting work than Cracknell, Stanley and Wiggs have been able to muster in years. To be eclipsed by the upstarts must be frustrating, and it probably partially accounts for why Saint Etienne’s last few albums have found the band obviously struggling to redefine their sound. Although I do hope they eventually succeed, Finisterre suggests that they’ve still got a long way to go.