ith all the talk about name-dropping and conceptualism, “Billy Liar” samples and feather boas, too often overlooked in discussions of Saint Etienne is the music. Quietly and improbably, the group have outlasted the indie-dance cul de sac and Britpop ambition, two movements in which they were falsely lumped, and have become one of the most rewarding and daring bands of the past decade. Despite releasing one of the most catchy, witty, and consistently lovable batch of singles of the 1990s, the band never lobbed one close enough to the top of the charts in their native UK to be saddled with the pressures that unnerved other unlikely mainstream stars such as Pulp. They’ve come out the other end of the boom-and-bust of their peers and now finally have delivered a graceful, worthy true follow-up to their early 1990s masterstrokes.
Saint Etienne have built a career out of distilling every major non-guitar sound into one swoon-inducing sound. They’ve blended exotica, yé-yé, disco, acid house, Eurodance, Tropicalia, and Swedish pop through the lens of rain-soaked streets and English sensibility—a sort of nu-Swinging London without the jingoism, white-washing, or laddist mentality that characterized Cool Britannia. Thankfully, this isn’t the sort of music that lends itself to a pantheon or a canon, and that’s why they have been able to so spritely, joyfully, and effectively play with it over the years.
On the other side of the coin, because of their large deal of experimentation in the latter half of the ’90s, the band struggled to find an identity. The Max Martin pop of Good Humour was prescient but patchy. Follow-up The Sound of Water contained a handful of extraordinary moments but it seemed a strained attempt at pastoral idyllism. Here back on solid concrete of London town, Saint Etienne have regained their touch.
On opener and single "Action," they return to sweet suburbia to try to find the people and places they used to know and "get the feeling again." But soon they end up in a different sort of London, one with the decaying tower blocks, kids on skateboards, and graffiti tagging that is featured on the album's artwork. Finisterre is a multicultural vision of London -- one that could be considered "land's end" to the city's centrally located, high street shoppers -- that recognizes the capitol's contemporary dance and youth rhythms rather than fruitlessly pining for the culture of the past.
Finger waggling and cold distance was never Saint Eteinne’s strength—the wise third-person narratives on Tiger Bay and the in-jokes of So Tough suited them better than “Join Our Club”. This is precisely why the half-speed stomp of yuppie-baiting “Amateur” is the album’s weakest moment. The message contained within, though, is a prescient one: Saint Etienne aren’t settling for mediocrity any longer. They’ve gracefully grown older and after a patchy album too focused on maturity we have a return to the scenes of their roots—the streets of London. The search begun on “Action” begins a narrative that is continued on the next track. On a Kentish Town Tuesday, the band is no longer stumbling into friends in rainy cafés but the failed pyramid schemes. Disillusioned with their roots, the band stumbles across the rest of the city, getting caught in the rain, riding the rails, hitting the clubs.
The rest of the record picks up this theme. Flute-driven instrumental “Lanaguage Lab” leads into a “nostalgia for an age yet to come.” The femme UK hip-hop of “Soft Like Me” with guest MC Wildflower is reminiscent of early track “Paper.” Its gentle message and delivery could furrow some brows, but Etienne fans will understand because this is the magic that’s been regained here. The bpm have slowed and the experimentation from track-to-track has slightly dulled, but the airy melodies, continental beats, and dreamy, ephemeral charm remains firmly in place.
Even more inviting is the fact that the band is still wise and cheeky enough to have manifestos. On the album’s closing and title track, Saint Etienne pledge to “tear it down and start again.” Cosmetique's Sarah Churchill delivers a state of the nation address that praises the “beer to lipstick scene” and that she “believes in Donovan over Dylan.” It’s this sort of confidence that comes when a band that sneered “teen spirit is the 90s scene” can survey their town and choose joy over angst, pop over grunge, and beauty over all else.
Reviewed by: Scott Plagenhoef
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01