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Saint Etienne surprises with U.S. label success

Observer Scene | Thursday, March 2, 2006

Electronic indie vets can still learn new tricks.

You might see rappers wear basketball jerseys or rock stars in the stands at a baseball game, but no one tops Saint Etienne in their dedication to pro sports. A presence since the late ’80s when electro pop ruled the clubs, Saint Etienne is named after its favorite French football club, AS Saint-Etienne.

But whether you call it football or soccer, the group’s new album, “Tales From Turnpike House,” has perched itself in the top 25 of the college radio chart for a month – and deservedly so. “Tales” features delicately packaged electronic dance and pop songwriting courtesy of Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs, with Sarah Cracknell’s soft and mature vocals as a petite bow on top. All three-band members started out as music journalists, and they showcase their experience and knowledge in the electronic genres throughout “Tales.”

Saint Etienne has mastered the art of a successful electronic indie album, combining dance rhythms, elegant production, a friendly pop atmosphere and an element of sincerity in each track.

Some songs, such as the sultry “Dream Lover,” have more of an Air or Dean & Britta breezy delivery. Bass walks behind keyboards and soft percussion with brief interludes of seductive flutes and guitars here and there. Other tracks, like the personal “Milk Bottle Symphony,” deliver a sprinting bassline and more of a typical electronic indie feeling, comparable to Postal Service’s “Give Up.” Other tracks stand out with less emphasis on electronic production, such as the opener “Side Streets” about avoiding the spotlight, which sounds more like a Belle and Sebastian song.

But the highlights of the album are the dance tracks, without a doubt. “A Good Thing” takes you straight to the discotheque with a dance pop groove similar to Kylie Minogue or Goldfrapp. The track features a triumphant riff of keys, bass and electronic percussion that moves the song forward like a good plot.

In “I’m Falling” the mechanical rhythm produced from the synths and electronic percussion melts into Cracknell’s tender voice. Showing off their mastery of different songwriting styles, Saint Etienne don’t waste a single track on their gem of an album. “Tales” is the first CD to come around in a long time to maintain an innocent attitude but also elements of excitement and euphoria.

Listeners might not recognize Saint Etienne as Brit-pop veterans immediately, since they have yet to achieve mainstream popularity in America. Yet the class and maturity of their delivery make it clear that this group of former music journalists is the real deal, even if they take their name from a French football team that’s near the basement in the standings.

Unlike AS Saint Etienne’s current season, “Tales” is full of elation and bravado with touches of charm and glamour. Any pop music fan that has the energy to dance can appreciate Saint Etienne. Even though it’s still early, “Tales” is a serious contender for album of the year.

At the beginning of the year, it was surprising Saint Etienne, British vets who released their latest record on an American hipster jazz label, would land in the ranks of Cat Power, Jenny Lewis or even The Strokes on the college music charts. But after just one listen, it’s no surprise how Saint Etienne have achieved so much success with “Tales.”