Saint Etienne ‘Words and Music By Saint Etienne' (Heavenly)
For their first album in seven years, British art-pop band Saint Etienne largely dispenses with the low-key approach that dominated 2005's “Tales From Turnpike House” and jumps onto the dance floor with “Words and Music By Saint Etienne.” While the trio has always volleyed between introspection and ecstatic beats over the course of two decades, this new album combines the two: the “Words” part of the equation reflect back on music history and a lifetime romance with pop and the “Music” offers a frequently brilliant combination of nostalgic sounds and future beats.
Always an irresistibly cooing presence on Saint Etienne's albums since 1991's “Foxbase Alpha,” singer Sarah Cracknell begins “Words and Music” with “Over the Border,” a slow-building spoken-word track in which she delivers her oral history. Cracknell recounts a childhood visit to Somerset, England, to see Peter Gabriel's house, then takes the listener through her maturation process, buying her first singles and albums, reading Melody Maker and finding love: “I knew he loved me, because he made me a tape,” she says as the beats get steadily stronger. It's a nice thesis statement for the album, leading into the truly joyous “I've Got Your Music” and the buoyant first single, “Tonight” — songs that feel utterly current and deserving of Top 40 play.
Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs, the other principles in Saint Etienne, were rock journalists before starting the band, and their employment of musical shorthand is more subtle these days than it was in the beginning — 1992's “So Tough” included a prominent sample of Rush's “Spirit of Radio,” of all things. When Stanley and Wiggs call one of the album's best tracks “Last Days of Disco,” they are not referencing the Whit Stillman film, and Cracknell never sings those words in the lyrics. Instead, they create a subtle pastiche of 1979-1980 pop with the kind of chord changes that would make Nile Rodgers of Chic immensely proud.
For Cracknell, “Words and Music By Saint Etienne” is heavy on concept, a view of things from the vantage point of midlife but seen through the prism of pop — the album cover is a fictional city map, filled with streets labeled “Penny Lane,” “Electric Avenue,” “Stanley Road” and “Ventura Highway,” among others. Like so many people Cracknell's age that grew up during musically rich times, she looks back on her personal history as if it were a musical, like the “Haunted Jukebox” of the album's lovely closer. Indeed, “Words and Music By Saint Etienne” would make a great stage production, a pop opera about growing up in record stores and having your life changed by rock 'n' roll, year by year.
— George Lang