Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Saint Etienne

  • Foxbase Alpha [Warner Bros., 1992] Dud
  • So Tough [Warner Bros., 1993] A-
  • Tiger Bay [Warner Bros., 1994] Dud
  • Good Humor [Sub Pop, 1998] **
  • Places to Visit [Sub Pop, 1999] Dud
  • Sound of Water [Sub Pop, 2000] Choice Cuts
  • Finisterre [Mantra, 2002] **
  • Travel Edition 1990-2005 [Sub Pop, 2004] A-
  • Words and Music by Saint Etienne [Heavenly/Universal, 2012] A-
  • Home Counties [Heavenly/PIAS, 2017] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Foxbase Alpha [Warner Bros., 1992] Dud

So Tough [Warner Bros., 1993]
Although their roots in the pretechno dance movement render their pop strictly futuristic, classic English not-rock with pretensions to not being pretentious, I stuck around when the first song evoked the female fanworld and the second cut was a niece of Brian Eno's "Sky Saw." Add the foregrounded textures and hidden tunes of two male pop intellectuals languidly manipulating synths and samplers to Sarah Cracknell's subdued lyricism and you have an educational argument for the impressionistic pastiche that's one British pop dream. Cracknell's all-purpose pomo receptivity projects no persona. She's a chameleon, a willing mouthpiece, an aural presence whispering: "Close your eyes/Kiss the future/Junk the morgue." A-

Tiger Bay [Warner Bros., 1994] Dud

Good Humor [Sub Pop, 1998]
Modern love for the postmodern English--sad, kind, contained ("Mr Donut," "Been So Long"). **

Places to Visit [Sub Pop, 1999] Dud

Sound of Water [Sub Pop, 2000]
"Heart Failed (In the Back of a Taxi)" Choice Cuts

Finisterre [Mantra, 2002]
"I've been searching for/All the people/I used to turn to/All the people/Who knew the answer/Let's get the feeling again" ("Soft Like Me," "Rock Palast") **

Travel Edition 1990-2005 [Sub Pop, 2004]
My appetite whetted by their comeback album and my excess weight indicator tripped by the two-CD "All the a-sides and more!" London Conversations, I sought out a used copy of this single-disc best-of and found it good--enjoying the two tracks it lifts from 1998's Good Humor, for instance, more than the two I highlighted in my brief. Saint Etienne's problem has always been melodies and arrangements a little too unobtrusive for Sarah Cracknell's compassionate calm and unshowy smarts. Their everything-but-the-glitz disco asserts itself so subtly that only the early "Mario's Cafe" and the late, atypically (and of course subtly) political "Heart Stopped in the Back of a Taxi" look you square in the eye and say classic. Still, when Cracknell quietly announces "I believe in Donovan over Dylan/Love over cynicism," you begin to wonder whether Donovan's as big a fool as you thought even though you know damn well he is. Cracknell manifestly isn't. Even though many of the love songs here are the sad kind, she's figured out how to keep her mind clear and her chin up. A-

Words and Music by Saint Etienne [Heavenly/Universal, 2012]
It's not like they ever disappeared--in Britain they've been minor fixtures, regularly releasing albums that all sounded markedly inferior to 1993's So Tough from here. There's even a best-of no Stateside bizzer ever touched. But they clearly regard their first proper album since 2006's Tales From Turnpike House as some kind of recapitulation or theme statement--a looking back that's warmly affectionate but too cool to melt into nostalgia. Announcing her intentions with a striking half-spoken reminiscence of a fandom that began at 10, Sarah Cracknell devotes most of these songs to the young clubbers and music lovers she was and knew. But at times you suspect her subjects and personas are older, still caught up in the same dreams. And the subject of "Twenty Five Years" is the time in front of her. Her male partners Bob Stanley and Peter Wiggs provide reliable disco-inflected pop or vice versa that the remixers on the optional bonus disc trick up with more wit and fidelity than we who avoid remixes sagely expect. A-

Home Counties [Heavenly/PIAS, 2017]
On an album situated in London's feeder communities, the stealth-arty putative-disco trio split the difference between a celebration of suburbia, which would be a lie, and a send-up of suburbia, which would be a rank cliché. Instead they fashion a sometimes sad, never tragic reflection well-suited to keyboard maestros Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs's steady-state tunecraft and Sarah Cracknell's calm, affectionate, all-conquering competence. Not much seems to happen in these songs beyond the distinct if similar female characters' pursuit of ordinary pleasure, occasional escape, and satisfactory love. But there's an inescapable sense that while the lives lived on these airy hillsides and mock-Tudor streets are limited, they're decent and admirable. Only the catchiest and drollest number rises above, eavesdropping at a transport hearing to borrow a righteous hook: "We need train drivers in eyeliner / We need train drivers all over this land / That's our plan." A-

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