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November 26, 2002

Saint Etienne: Eventually, the emotion will get to you

Admitting being bested is often the best policy, so here is presented probably one of the best introductions to Saint Etienne, by Kevin Pearce, from the liner notes of the anthology Smash the System. "When they come to write the dissertations, and all the deconstructions and doctorates are done and dusted, I hope the point is not lost. For how Saint Etienne subtly smashed the system was by mastering the art of being all things to all people." He's right--Saint Etienne manage to cross so many stylistic lines that it is hard to imagine that someone will be unable to find a single song he or she likes. Even on the above mentioned anthology, the styles vary widely--from the sample heavy early '90s stuff prefabbed for the nightclubs to 2000's minimal and haunting Sound of Water.

Clearly, then, the title of the long-awaited follow-up, Finisterre, was a bit troubling. The drowning spiral of Sound of Water I feared would reach apocalyptic proportions here at the end of the world. Yet 90 seconds in, the worry is destroyed as the welcoming house beat (backed, audaciously, by a wall of guitars) of "Action," the first single, binds together the swirling synthesizers that had been. Once the song is underway, Sarah Cracknell draws out the listener's travel plans in the first verse: "Need to make it special / Need to make it new / Looking for the action / Something more to do." "Action," though sadly short, is ready to explode in a club at any second, and, what's more, it's not even necessarily the best house track on the album.

The second single of the album, "Soft Like Me," and finale "Finisterre" are soft pop ditties with lifting rap lines across the top. "Soft Like Me," which features energetic Wildflower on the mic, has a bubbly energy that makes it golden, reminding one of the excursions into hip-hop Pizzicato Five used to do seven years ago. The rough quality implied (all over the place) by hip-hop is weirdly subverted by the melody and Cracknell's dreamy rendering of the chorus ("Hey do you wanna be / Or don't you wanna be / Soft like me?"). "Finisterre" is a knockout of a finale that somehow short-circuits itself literally one measure after becoming absolutely amazing. Michael Jayston, who reads snippets of text between songs, closes the album with "you see, McGee was into deals; Barrett was into moves" before a sample of a crowd fritters away the final seconds.

Other than the dreamy Good Humor-esque slow-paced "Stop and Think it Over," the highlight of Finisterre is probably the dance floor wonder "Shower Scene," which floats on a cheerful bed of analogue effects. Both songs cover typical pop ground of uncertainty within the emotional world in ways that make common criticisms of Saint Etienne totally inexplicable. Cracknell always sings earnestly the emotional content of these songs. It seems hard to listen to her sing "Call my name" (Saint Etienne seems to have a fetish for telephones and love at a distance) in "Shower Scene" and not want to lunge for a telephone. Cracknell can draw you into a world where the sublime value of the music is waiting to back you up. Anyone ever far from a loved one can appreciate the longing in "Shower Scene," and can probably see that longing stretch back through "Mr Donut," "Like a Motorway," and all the way to "You're in a Bad Way" or "Nothing Can Stop Us."

Longing, yearning, and desire are the currency of Saint Etienne. This is valuable, valuable stuff. Yet the band does seem smart enough to know that there is something empty about having desire satisfied. Our desire is built up and gains emotional force by being left unfulfilled--and Saint Etienne are the masters at leaving the masses wanting more. Finisterre ends just as it is about to break free, the telephone always has to suffice as a way of connecting with a loved one, and then there is the problem of Sarah Cracknell herself, a person possessing such a mellifluous voice that I was infatuated with it four measures into the first singing of the chorus of "Woodcabin," the first song on the first Saint Etienne disc I ever heard. She remains, obviously always already beyond reach (it's a voice--and a person I've invented who has that voice), so the desire kindles. We all want to hear how the album is supposed to end, but never will. Linger around and yearn longer--the next instalment will be as potent.

That kind of emotional potency carries over into the live show, as well. Saint Etienne appeared at the Double Door last Thursday supporting the new album, and though the crowd seemed tepidly interested in the events onstage (or, at least, emotionally uninvested), for those willing to sell out to the music and vocals, the concert was surely worth it. Sadly, the majesty was tamed by the emptiness of opening act Dot Allison, who never managed to fill the venue with any sort of urgency as well as the simple discomfort of a place like the Double Door. The band had three keyboard stations set up in the back (and had a third fellow in the back there alternating between guitar and keyboard), with Cracknell in front. The set itself was, luckily, all hits, spanning the entire band's history, from set opener "Heart Failed" (2000) to set-closer "Nothing Can Stop Us" (1991).

In between, the band performed eight songs from the new album, accompanied by portions from a new film about London being filmed by Paul Kelly and Kieran Evans in conjunction with the album. It was hard to focus on the film, however, because of how well Cracknell can work a crowd and emote--and especially when the shots were largely bleak, people-free views of grainy construction and other signs of the peculiarity of modern aesthetics demonstrated on the sparse collages that make up Finisterre's album art. The connection between Cracknell's bubbly presence and the cold urban world projected behind her made me frequently close out the latter to focus on the former.

Cracknell was accompanied onstage for "Soft Like Me" by Wildflower, an energetic and small woman (then again, Cracknell also seemed smaller than I had imagined), to cover the verses--yet even here Cracknell managed to steal the show, by tightly hugging herself as she sang the song's title during the chorus. She did not bounce around much, but managed just enough motion to keep all the focus on her (plus, she was dressed in bright red slacks and top, while the men in the back hid, dressed in roadie black). It's weird how Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley seem to prop Cracknell up while also hiding themselves--and though their musical genius is crucial for the overall appeal of the band, Cracknell's shown she can go it alone, with truly remarkable solo efforts already under her belt. So maybe it's still just more the issue of desire: by putting her there, making her the centre of the band, the band can never become captured--the boys will never have their infatuations fulfilled, and the girls will never get the boys to get her out of their heads, leaving again this question of yearning unanswered, more or less like it should be.