Saint Etienne have occupied a particular niche in British indie, long flirting with the mainstream but never quite breaking into it, while maintaining a certain fashionable credibility. Marrying a 60s (French) pop sensibility to post-acid house dance beats, Saint Etienne were committed to the ideal of the 3-minute ‘pure pop’ song. ‘London Conversations‘, their Best Of, is often a nostalgic listen, reflecting particular music fashions in the capital for more than a decade: from the fantastic, early 90s indie-dance ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ (a Neil Young cover) and the breezy electro-house of ‘Like A Motorway’, to flirtations with acid jazz, chamber pop, neo-soul, trip hop and Balearic. It’s a contemporaneous affair: the Italian-house of ‘He’s On the Phone’ – a style revisited periodically throughout their career – sounds most dated now, while ‘Filthy’ transports me to the Heavenly Social circa 1994, when the Chemical Brothers were the Dust Brothers and Big Beat provided a beery dancefloor alternative to Britpop.
Fronted by indie-kid pin-up Sarah Cracknell, Saint Etienne were essentially music journalists-turned-producers Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley. While the music journalism role may have been overstated, it is impossible to listen to Saint Etienne and not think of them as a rather contrived, esoteric amalgam of pop influences. Coupled with Cracknell’s breathy vocals and clever-clever lyrics, it is a charming pose that some listeners may find a little too precious, too saccharine. Pop scientists with an insouciant gift for melody, at best Saint Etienne sound like the Cocteau Twins reinvented for the indie-dance era, at their worst they sound like Madonna-lite.
As I’m not a long-term fan of the band I can’t comment on the track selection for this compilation suffice to say that at nearly 40 tracks I can’t imagine there are too many omissions. If anything, for the novice, this is too much – the tinny insistence on keyboards and garden variety breakbeats or 4/4 house rhythms quickly becomes repetitive: after a while I found myself yearning for some more substantial live percussion. As evident in the retrospective display of cover artwork in ‘London Conversations’, Saint Etienne are quite a design-conscious band, and it is hard not to think of their back catalogue as that of a rather trendy brand, more than band, that has moved with the times for reasons of fashion more than creativity. But for those in search of ‘pure pop’, whatever that means, should look no further than ‘London Conversations’.