Saint Etienne – Words and Music by Saint Etienne
In a world where doom and gloom-themed stories dominate the news headlines, sometimes what is needed is a joyous, gold-old fashioned pop record to counteract the general downbeat mood painted by the pessimistic press. Luckily, Saint Etienne happen to be experts at creating such records, and have been so that for over twenty years. However, Words and Music by Saint Etienne marks something of a return for the London-based band with the French name, this being their first release since 2005’s Tales from Turnpike House. But whilst Turnpike featured a greater variety of different sounds, Words and Music is a more straightforward pop record and is perhaps all the better for it, containing a mixture of songs about nostalgia and longing for elements of the past, mixed with others about the joys of living in the moment.
Opening track Over the Border most definitely belongs in the former category. Vocalist Sarah Cracknell reminisces about her childhood, her detailed lyrics and delivery both comparable to Jarvis Cocker, narrating the verses in spoken word and recalling a simpler time where she would read Smash Hits and listen to Dexy’s Midnight Runners and New Order. With a melancholic chorus that breaks up these verses where Cracknell sings about her mortality and the uncertainty of the future, the combination of these two approaches help to create a not only distinctive but also brilliant opener. Similarly, When I was Seventeen and I Threw it All Away are also personal recollections of more innocent, care-free times, with the latter containing a mournful medieval-sounding riff that makes it stand out from other tracks on the record, sounding like Lonely Head-era Goldfrapp, and every bit as good.
For the most part though, the aptly worded Words and Music is just that – a celebration of both words and music. Songs such as Heading for the Fair and perfect summer tune I’ve Got Your Music epitomise this, with their euphoric piano riffs a kind of commemoration to the 90s house scene that was prevalent when the band first started releasing music. Meanwhile, the influence of former Xenomania member and Words and Music’s co-producer Tim Powell shines through as the band incorporate more modern pop sounds into tracks such as Last Days of Disco, Tonight and DJ. Tonight in particular is a great example of a superb pop tune that fastens itself to your mind straight from the first listen. As Cracknell eagerly sings about a band she is going to see (“Maybe they’ll open with an album track/Or a top five hit, no turning back”) it is hard not to imagine Tonight being a top 5 hit itself, were it sung by a more mainstream artist such as, for example, Kylie Minogue. It’s a shame, therefore, that Words and Music will probably not find the wider audience that it deserves, especially considering that every track found here is much better than anything Kylie and many other contemporary ‘pop stars’ have come out with in recent years.
Irrespective of this, Words and Music is an album that deserves to be heard by as wide an audience as possible. It might not try to reinvent the wheel in any wheel in any major way, but whether it be the infectious, more slow-paced groove of Twenty Five Years or the dream pop stylings of Answer Song, every song is a pleasure to listen to. Saint Etienne have created that rare beast, a dance-pop record that is a guilt-free listen and, most importantly, free of filler. Put down the newspaper, turn off the TV and dance, sing, enjoy: This gem of an album is a delight to behold.