Reasserts a forgotten treasure as one of the finest British albums of the 90s.
Luke Turner 2009-09-02
Although upon its release Saint Etienne’s second album So Tough marked the band’s chart high point, time has seen it fade from a cultural memory that has the mid-90s pegged as The Britpop Years.
This is curious, for the 1993 record was created from a very similar palette to that employed by Britpop’s songwriters – an updated 1960s soundtrack to narratives of everyday London life – but to far superior results. Saint Etienne’s observations were keener, their aesthetic more refined and the very songs smarter than what was to come a year or so later. In part, this is because while Saint Etienne loved to find beauty in the mundane (“Bruce on the old Generation Game” and squeezy ketchup bottles in Kentish Town cafes) unlike the majority of their contemporaries they weren’t afraid to explore sounds from beyond the English coast, be it French pop, hip hop or global electronica.
It’s perhaps because of this diversity of influence that So Tough still sounds skittish and fresh today. Leafhound echoes the piano sounds that characterised early 90s dance records, and Conichita Martinez has a European disco feel heightened by the repeated vocal and scrambled guitar lines that appear as if you’d suddenly stumbled across them on a short wave radio. You’re in a Bad Way still stands up as a bona-fide pop classic, while on the equally elegant Avenue, sumptuous “oooohs” suddenly disappear into a stately harpsichord interlude without creating a pretentious non-sequitur. It represents an ambition sadly seen from too few groups since. Calico, meanwhile, anticipates trip hop, and Junk the Morgue is a curious transatlantic cousin of Madonna’s Erotica.
While Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs’ ability to combine the influences gleaned from their prodigious record collections made Saint Etienne ripe for a cerebral dancefloor, it was Sarah Cracknell’s versatile singing (breathy one moment, soulful the next) that was key to creating an overarching (but never overly arch) identity out of these disparate moods. It’s certainly more effective than Saint Etienne’s stylistic device of connecting each track with clips of dialogue from obscure British film or snatches of conversation, which feels hackneyed and dated, disrupting the album’s flow. Nevertheless, this is a minor quibble, and by rights So Tough’s reissue reasserts a forgotten treasure as one of the finest British albums of the 90s.