Such smooth, tuneful music on Sub Pop, once home exclusively to that scummy rock music?what was it called? Gorge? Grudge? But you can make too much of that incongruity. Sub Pop has been diversifying at least since it started putting out the Spinanes, so what?s the difference if they want to go electro-pop now?
What?s more striking is the way you can trace trends in light pop music by listening to this disc. It begins with a lovely pastoral instrumental recorded in 2004, but then jumps backward to Saint Etienne?s earliest work, including a 1990 cover of Neil Young?s ?Only Love Can Break Your Heart.? The tune is stiffly chanted over a looped drum sample; it?s quite far from today?s more challenging, staggered percussive dance music, but it?s not without its charms (although it is without vocalist Sarah Cracknell, who evidently hooked on in 1991). ?Nothing Can Stop Us? and ?Avenue? recall such late ?80s-early ?90s fare as the Pet Shop Boys, chirpy pop tunes in slick clubbing gear. ?Mario?s Caf?? is similarly pleasant, a cream puff of a song calling to mind Heavenly going all dancey (Heavenly 17?), but its dated lyrical allusions to late-?80s stars the KLF and Prince Be sound a bit silly now.
?Hug My Soul? is from 1994?s Tiger Bay, but it reminds me of nothing so much as ?Vogue?-era Madonna, with its burbling backbeat and devotional lyrics. It has been a long time since I?ve paid any attention to music like this, the last time being in 1992 when I roomed with a guy who was into it; hearing Cracknell purr lyrics like ?boy, what are you thinking of?? is a quick entry ticket into the wayback machine. I remember trying to fathom the lose-yourself romanticism of dance music, the swirling, Wildean mischief-chaos my friend reveled in as it played. But I was too busy plunging into Grudge, I guess, hiding as much in flannel and torn denim as my friend did in tighter clothes, better drinks, wittier quips. You had to know this guy.
Erasure was still around and releasing records in the mid-1990s, but Saint Etienne seems not to have been briefed on that fact, as they undertook to replicate that band?s sound and method exactly. ?Like a Motorway,? ?Burnt Out Car,? and especially ?He?s on the Phone? achieve that same synthesis of ABBA, Motown, and New Order that Erasure perfected. By 1998, though ? the beginning of Saint Etienne?s Sub Pop tenure ? they moved to a more organic sound, and is it wrong or d?class? to say that in so doing they became vastly more compelling? ?Lose That Girl? sounds like nothing so much as a Versus song, but favoring a downbeat, marimba-centric arrangement rather than crunchy guitars. The harpsichord of ?Goodnight Jack? evokes the Left Banke, and the ambitious, suite-like ?How We Used to Live? even adds a slightly psychedelic wah-wah touch to its otherwise Pet-Sounds-ish proceedings.
The most recent songs show Saint Etienne?s facility with more modern mixing techniques; while the earliest songs plod a bit, as much dance music of that era did, ?Action? leaps from bumping bass to jangling guitar and back again over a skittering beat. ?Fascination? and ?Finisterre? close out the album, the former elegant but rather vapid, the latter a Go-Betweens-go-techno reverie on bygone days. Days, maybe, of blurry clubs, haughty in-jokes, Long Island iced teas, bitter rifts, patch-ups, kitsch appreciation, carefree sarcasm. Do those things keep you warm, sustain you, make you happy? No, but the game is in trying to get them to. 7/10 -- Sal Addays (25 May, 2005)