Saint Etienne’s music embraces soaring house rhythms, Petula Clark young sophisticate nightingale vocals and a healthy aesthetic appetite that gives the three Britons license to borrow bits of whatever strikes their fancy. These sonic confectioners tastily mix soulful dance pop and abstract samples in an unusually creamy electronic base, resulting in breezy modern songs of multi-layered richness.
Foxbase Alpha, the 1991 debut by Sarah Cracknell (vocals) and Croydon masterminds Bob Stanley (keyboards) and Peter Wiggs (keyboards), pricked up ears with a lilting cover of Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart.” Otherwise, it offers sleek girl-groupisms (“Carn’t Sleep,” “Kiss and Make Up” and “Spring”) and universal groove anthems (“People Get Real” and “Etienne Gonna Die,” which borrows a chunk of dialogue from David Mamet’s House of Games).
So Tough opens with an invitation to pull up a chair at “Mario’s Cafe” as the band sketches out a London scene (“Rainy cafe Kentish Town Tuesday/Joking around still digging that sound/Everyone’s dreaming of all they’ve got to live for”). Grooving manifestoes (“Join Our Club” and “Junk the Morgue”) fit in snugly alongside the percolating “Conchita Martinez” (which samples the spiraling guitar licks of Rush’s “Spirit of the Radio”) and the dubby “Railway Jam” and “Calico.” “You’re in a Bad Way” arrays Cracknell’s glossiest vocals in a classic Supremes setting.
You Need a Mess of Help to Stand Alone is an ephemera collection containing B-sides, compilation items and the like. The holiday EP bears the exuberant “I Was Born on Christmas Day” and a cover of Billy Fury’s “My Christmas Prayer.”
“Urban Clearway,” the pulsating panorama that begins Tiger Bay, approximates a hybrid of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” and the theme from TV’s Hart to Hart. Each atmospheric track on this most cinematic of Saint Etienne’s albums sounds like an outline for an imaginary film. Cracknell’s gliding ingénue vocals give “Hug My Soul” (included in two versions) the feel of a big Vincente Minnelli dance number. “Like a Motorway” is a wistful, end-of-a-relationship narrative; “Former Lover” is evanescently gentle and hymn-like.
Too Young to Die, initially issued as a two-disc set, is a comprehensive retrospective of Saint Etienne’s singles, with one new track (“He’s on the Phone”) and remixes by Aphex Twin, Sure Is Pure and the Chemical Brothers.