Travel Edition: 1990-2005
he sun was once bright for smart and innovative pop music that mixed everything under the sun. The most recent in the long lineage of these pop distillers is the strange and wondrous group Girls Aloud. Perhaps the greatest and most renowned is Saint Etienne.
It’s a tough achievement to feel strongly about, however. Since when has the best pop historian gotten anyone massive success and worldwide respect, the Girls notwithstanding? For Bob Stanley, it’s a vaguely solitary pursuit: Etienne will probably never grow larger than their modest chart success that they garnered at the tail end of the acid house boom.
But because of their usual acknowledgement as progenitors of Brit Pop, Etienne never really needed to grow much larger than they did: their shadow looms large over the pop landscape. Their contribution only reached the masses via the people they influenced. Instead of getting to the masses, the group played for a select few tastemakers that took their ideas and energy to its logical conclusion.
The middleground that Etienne occupied: a strange place where “Motown, girl group, hip-hop, Northern Soul, yé-yé, house, tropicalia, exotica and techno” (as Scott Plagenhoef on this very site once put it) all melded together into an unwieldy mass of joyousness and communicatory power. Etienne, if they were ever about anything, were always about education, whether it be explicit or unconscious.
That education, so says the new Sub Pop compilation Travel Edition properly begins with the classic “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”, which in the light of 2004 has dated well despite its now lumbering tempo and thudding breakbeat. As a template for what Saint Etienne is all about, it’s incredibly instructive. A cover of the Neil Young song of the same name, the group transforms the song from its original rock context into a dance-based anthem that has Moira Lambert repeating the final line for exaggerated effect.
More importantly, though, the song traded shimmering guitars for rave keyboards and an already extraneous drummer for the aforementioned breakbeats. For better or worse, this is the one thing that many of the Brit Pop bands would not take to heart as a genuine innovation. What they did take, however, was the ebullience of “Nothing Can Stop Us” or the irresistibility of “Like A Motorway”. It was in the structure and the attitude that Etienne made their biggest marks to other bands and in their sound and look to the majority of casual music listeners.
It’s the problem of nearly all revolutions that unintended effects become the most noticeable building blocks of the new regime. If Saint Etienne would have only brought one thing to the whole of popular music, few would probably have picked a nostalgia for the swinging 60s London attitude that would help give rise to oafish Laddism and the like. But, without them, we’d be left without a whole host of other things—most of all the music. And listening to “He’s On the Phone” again for the god-knows-how-many-th time in the past hour, I can’t help but think that it all turned out for the best.
Reviewed by: Charles Merwin
Reviewed on: 2004-11-30