Imagine, for a moment, a different sort of universe. This is a world where Madonna does not reign over our pop culture. Instead, we get Sarah Cracknell. Instead of fake accents and Kaballah, we get quiet sophistication and an increased interest in the novels of Virginia Woolf. Exchange bad movie roles for perhaps a small, literate walk-on in a Mike Leigh film. In this world, Madonna's Sex book flops, and Sarah Cracknell gets asked to host a travel show in which she mostly stays out of the frame of the camera, her voiceover describing the beautiful scenery of said location and the best places to get fresh goat cheese salads.
I don't know the first thing about Sarah Cracknell, but that is what I imagine this alternate world to feel like. It would be less brash, more intellectual and overall very fulfilling. We would be more prepared to deal with our boring day jobs, and the angry drivers, and over-sugared children because at the end of the day, we would know we could come home, put on a Saint Etienne record, and enjoy the subtleties of life.
Saint Etienne's Travel Edition 1990-2005 has just arrived in the mostly-red United States of America, and the timing couldn't be better. The United Kingdom got a greatest hits compilation three years ago (Smash the System), but we, in the land of plenty, probably needed to wait a bit. The country is undeniably split and while we have our Blue representatives (Ted Leo, Billie Joe Armstrong) and our Red (Alan Jackson), perhaps a non-partisan mediator is required. Someone who can, in effect, say, 'Please, study up on your politics and your causes, but for right now, let's get in the car and lament about love and the pros and cons of staying out until the sun rises.'
More than the lyrics or the music (both of which can easily stand up on their own), Saint Etienne's songs are about the greater sum of the parts. What matters with Saint Etienne is what the music evokes. This atmosphere is what has always made them stand out. Sure, the songs can be pretty and, yes, oftentimes the basic description of a particular tune is 'dance', but they've always transcended tags. Saint Etienne are not smarter than us. What they do is assume their listener's intelligence. They don't pander to either an easy, pop-driven simplicity nor a forced intellectual pretension. They assume our inherent knowledge instead of having to teach us a lesson. When listening to Saint Etienne, one does feel the pull of a region with a longer cultural history than has existed on this side of the Atlantic. The record sounds great here, but I imagine it sounding even better driving through London, or Paris, or Berlin.
Saint Etienne's core is Bob Stanley, Pete Wiggs, and Sarah Cracknell. Cracknell joined in 1991 and has become the epicenter, and face, of the band. Two singles on this compilation feature other vocalists - the eternally lovely remake of Neil Young's "Only Love Can Break Your Heart", sung wistfully by Moira Lambert and the high-art dance number divinely dramatized with the help of Etienne Daho, "He's on the Phone". The remaining songs give us Ms. Cracknell alone interpreting life and the meaning of a good night out. The trio sound so good together, it's hard to imagine them ever being apart, living separate lives.
The momentum in this mostly chronological collection is, well, what it should be: a driving force. We begin with the sparse, lulling instrumental, "Primrose Hill", meander our way into "Mario's Cafe", find ourselves smoothly dancing to "Burnt Out Car", and eventually we relax, sipping our tea to "Heart Failed (In the Back of a Taxi)". Although running well over an hour, once you start the record, it's hard to take it off. Furthermore, once you've listened to the entire CD, the question becomes, What can I possibly play next? The answer is, probably, nothing. You should go read a book now. Let your ears rest on what you've just heard. Put on some Billie Holiday or Leonard Cohen later in the evening.
If you're a longtime Saint Etienne fan, you've already compulsively picked up this release, entranced by its beautiful cover art. If you have clicked on this review, having heard Saint Etienne's name for years, but never indulging, now is the time. Get the aptly named Travel Edition, take it with you everywhere, and start planning your first Saint Etienne studio release purchase. Because you know you'll be a fan. You've always known it. Now is your excuse to begin the journey.