June 29, 2006

The Angelic Attitude Of Saint Etienne
by Ernesto Lechner

Though mainstream success has eluded them, they're not bitter? really

If a band's popularity depended solely on the sheer beauty of its melodies, then British trio Saint Etienne would probably be enjoying fame of Beatlesque proportions by now.

But the band, whose sonic universe alternates between the wide-eyed innocence of Burt Bacharach and the retro coolness of Ennio Morricone soundtracks, with a dash of electronica thrown in for good measure, remains a cult outfit more than 15 years after their inception. It's a situation that vocalist Sarah Cracknell and keyboardists Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs have learned to accept.

"It's funny, because I always liked those bands that the general public didn't really know about," says Cracknell sitting in the backstage area of a Hollywood club hours before a sold-out Los Angeles show. "Part of me likes the fact that we're a bit of a secret. Then again, part of me would like more people to know about us."

Although Saint Etienne's best recordings (1998's Good Humor, 2000's Sound Of Water and this year's concept album Tales From Turnpike House) overflow with potential singles, the trio's chart success has been moderate. On the other hand, reviews are consistently glowing.

"As far as the press goes, the last few albums have enjoyed an amazing reception," points out Stanley. "People seem to understand what we do. I'd be upset if we were completely dismissed."

"Fundamentally, we're not bitter," adds Cracknell. "We laugh. A hollow laugh, but we laugh. And we just keep going ? we sort of hop from one stone to another."

"I was familiar with Saint Etienne but knew them as more of a Euro-dance group," says Steve Vining, president of the Savoy Label Group, which released Tales From Turnpike House in the United States. "When I heard the first single from the new album, the adult pop sensibility of the song really grabbed me. As I got further into the project, its spectacular vocals and pristine production work made me a believer."

Turnpike House is the band's seventh full-length studio album. It follows a day in the life of the inhabitants in a London apartment complex and in the process summarizes the threesome's aural obsessions. Etienne's distinct sound has always thrived by combining an indie sensibility with a healthy obsession for retro pop from the '60s and '70s. A song from their magnum opus Sound Of Water is dedicated to "Downey, CA," hometown of the Carpenters. Harpsichords appear frequently in their lushly arranged instrumental tracks, many of which suggest the imaginary soundtrack to a James Bondesque film. Cracknell's singing style is old-fashioned and restrained. Elegance is her forte.

This unique sound is also achieved by favoring a collaborative process when it comes to songwriting.

"One of us will start a track and bring it to the studio in varying degrees of 'finishedness,'" explains Stanley. "The three of us work on it until it's done. We're really big music fans and listen to all different types of music."

Indeed, the trio's faces light up at the mere mention of some venerable artists from the past.

On John Barry: "I've been a fan since 'The Persuaders' was on TV in the '70s," says Stanley. "That was it from that point on."

On Ennio Morricone: "He's equally important," adds Wiggs. "I love the way he'll come up with a ridiculously simple melody, then put some shifting chords underneath. Or his unexpected blends of symphony orchestras with electric guitars."

On Burt Bacharach: "He's less easy to assimilate," offers Stanley. "Very complex."

Cracknell has enriched the Saint Etienne sound with a score of other influences. "Debbie Harry from Blondie was a big influence," she says. "She made me want to be in a band. Also Elizabeth Fraser from the Cocteau Twins taught me that you can use your voice as an instrument or a sound effect."

Vocals are an integral part of the new record, more so than ever before. The opening track, "Side Streets," finds Saint Etienne indulging in some Beach Boys channeling with, for them, unusually rich harmonies. And the endearing "Milk Bottle Symphony" reinforces the group's manifesto ? making pop music that is airy and transcendental at the same time, evoking the charm of less complicated times.

"I know that it is a bit of a cliché to say that the latest album you've made is your all-time favorite, but that's the case with me right now," says Cracknell. "I think it's our most accomplished work. It does sound quite grown up, you know."

(Ernesto Lechner writes for Rolling Stone, The Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune, among other publications. His book Rock En Español was published by Chicago Review Press in June.)