Music’s always been a big deal for me. One of my earliest memories is looking at the cover of my mum’s copy of Sergeant Pepper, slightly baffled by all of the characters on it. Growing up, I always had my walkman with me along with an extra pair of batteries in my pocket just so that I was never left stranded in silence. When I was old enough to have a bit of spare cash, I’d cycle to the record shops of Croydon and Epsom doing my best to fill the gaps in my ever increasing New Order 12″ collection. At uni I got involved with student radio, and then when I went and got a job, Monday lunchtimes would draw to close with a game of “Who?” – the inevitable reaction from my older colleagues as I went through the brand new releases I had gone and bought as early as I possibly could – 7″s by Kenickie, Bis or Comet Gain, Stereolab albums on coloured vinyl, the latest cds on Heavenly or Warp Records. Throughout my twenties, my summer holidays were festivals. Over the years I built up a soundtrack to my life – tunes which can instantly bring back memories of blue skies or broken hearts. So, music is important – If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be writing this, and you wouldn’t be reading it. It’s especially important to Saint Etienne. They’ve been making records for over twenty years now, during which time they’ve also turned their hand to music journalism, DJing, running record labels, writing songs for other people, film-making … You name it, they’ve done it in the music industry, which is how they’ve ended up at the point where Words & Music is the natural album for them to make. Opening track Over The Border will send shivers down the spine for anyone music really matters to, lyrically encapsulating exactly how it feels for music to grow up with you.
The very first thing I read about the album was a comment from someone on Twitter saying that Saint Etienne had made a pop record. Of course it was pop, I thought – they’re a pop band, after all. The gist of next comment I read was that they’d made the record with Xenomania, and it showed. That didn’t concern me either. The lead single, Tonight, reminded me of Action, which the band released ten years ago, and my girlfriend said that reminded it her of He’s on the Phone, from all the way back in 1995. The perception from some quarters seems to be that Saint Etienne should only be allowed to make retro pop, but the truth is that they’ve always had a bit of disco in them – They even worked with Kylie on a version of Nothing Can Stop Us.
While some of the tracks have been sprinkled with a bit of pop magic from Richard X and other Xenomania alumni Nick Coler and Tim Powell, old hand Ian Catt who’s been involved with the production of Saint Etienne records since day one is also on board. Outside of the disco pop of the potential singles, the pastoral folk of I Threw It All Away could be a Vashti Bunyan cover, and the acapella of Record Doctor harks back to Goodnight which closed Tales From Turnpike House seven years ago.
For me, the most interesting tracks are those that hark back to classic St Et but that are informed by all of the new lessons they’ve learned from their new chartbusting friends. Last Days of Disco has radio friendly electric piano verses, but two minutes in has a great breakdown which brings in some shamelessly synth strings. Popular, one of the more upbeat tracks on the album, does some fancy things time stretching vocals. Still Saint Etienne, but still moving forwards, which for a band so far into their career is no mean feat.
While it’s been a good few years since the last Saint Etienne album, the band have been busy being Artists-in-Residence at Royal Festival Hall, celebrating the twentieth anniversary of their seminal debut Foxbase Alpha by playing the album live in it’s entirety and having it remixed by Richard X, reissuing remastered versions of the rest of their back catalogue, remixing a new generation of bands and quietly sneaking out a Christmas album. Here’s hoping there aren’t so many distractions for the band between now and the next album.
Words and Music by Saint Etienne is released on Universal Records on 21st May 2012. And if you’re wondering why I’m writing about Saint Etienne who are so associated with London on Brighton Music Blog, read my interview with Pete Wiggs here.