I do not read a great deal about music these days. A monthly copy of ‘Record Collector’ is skimmed, at best, although I admit that the columns by Luke Haines and Bob Stanley bring me a great deal of pleasure. It’s strangely comforting to know that they are out there being reliably amusingly opinionated and engagingly informative respectively. Didn’t Stanley write something about the ’90s in there recently? Anyway, Cherry Red are putting out another of their 3CD boxes early in 2022, this one focusing on 1991. I’ve looked at the track-listing and listened to some of it, but the majority means next to nothing to me. Those tracks and acts that I do recall, however, I do so with a great fondness. World Of Twist, Paris Angels, Flowered Up and of course Saint Etienne. No Ariel on there, though, which is an enormous gap, for ‘Rollercoaster’ was certainly the best single of that year, though perhaps ‘Nothing Can Stop Me’ would run it pretty close.
It’s funny though, because if you had asked back in 1991 which of the acts would still be around some three decades down the line, and with a significant body of highly accomplished work to boot, I suspect very few would have put their money on Saint Etienne. Everything they did at that point seemed so marvellously in-tune with the transient nature of Pop, after all. ‘Fox Base Alpha’ was almost as an homage to that very essence of impermanence, although naturally too it shone a light on the peculiar paradoxical durability of the form. The whole artefact resonated with the irradiated glow of Pop’s nuclear core, yes, but it was surely a sublime one-off? To make one great album and then split up felt like the great dream of the day. An impossible one, on so many levels, as it turned out, and thank goodness for that. For here we are in a future that the past could never imagine, ‘Fox Base Alpha’ with a quarter century anniversary reissue box set under it’s belt and another Saint Etienne record to join an extended family of much-loved relations on the CD shelves.
Now I remember being at an education conference a few years ago where a Head Teacher was telling us the secrets of their success. It was a story very much against the grain of the dominant narrative of the times, and I think I turned to a colleague and said how it kind of proved that it doesn’t really matter what you do, it’s how you do it that counts. In other words, pick a direction and stick with it. Work hard on that vision and don’t be distracted. It seems to me that Saint Etienne are proof of this, for although they have wisely allowed themselves to weave down tangential avenues of interest, the core that emanates the energy of Pop’s eternal thrill has been a constant throughout.
That core of Pop’s energy is, as any fool knows, the power source for time travel, and Saint Etienne tap into it with typical skill on ‘I’ve Been Trying To Tell You’. They’ve used it to warp back to the turn of the century, swipe a bunch of snippets from records by the likes of Natalie Imbruglia, Lighthouse Family, Lightning Seeds, Tasmin Archer, Honeyz and Samantha Mumba, before zipping back to a pandemic blighted future to assemble it all into a record that captures the spirit of optimism soured. It may all be fabulously conceptual, but because this is Saint Etienne it never comes over as unbearably serious. I mean, the songs are apparently titled after horses that ran in the Grand National, for goodness sake.
It is unclear in what year a horse called Penlop may have raced at Aintree, but it certainly gives title to my favourite cut on ‘I’ve Been Trying To Tell You’. Five and a half minutes of cinematically seductive soft groove, it is a song that perfectly showcases Saint Etienne’s innate ability to be simultaneously Internationalist and peculiarly, naturally English in the same breath. Sarah Cracknell sounds as heavenly as ever, extolling us to discover the pleasures of Chester town, a sprinkling of magic lending the home of ‘Hollyoaks’ the Pure Pop allure of Kansas City, Phoenix, Albuquerque et al. Not content with this, however, Cracknell then invokes her inner Liz Fraser to beguile us with visions of the “ruby dusk”, into which we drive, dissolving to shimmering echoes on the horizon. Blissed out, and then some.
If you are happy to share data about your age with Big Tech then I heartily recommend watching the clip put together by photographer and film-maker Alasdair McLellan to accompany the track. A poignant Jarman-esque eulogy to elliptical time and memory that knowingly loops on itself, it is gorgeously shot and edited with a charmingly self-referential conclusion. A phone call spans the decades of technology; a conversation in a caff where we ask if we ever wonder where we are going and if we ever wonder where we’ve been; “Only love can mend a broken heart”. Kapow.
Speaking of time travel and things catching back up and catching one out, it was something of a wonderful surprise to hear new recordings by Rachel Love appear in 2021. Love (under her maiden name of Bor) was of course one of the Dolly Mixture trio whose ‘Been Teen’ single of 1981 gave title to my very first fanzine effort. A hand written edition of one passed around friends at parties, it was, in the fractured imagination of my dulled memory, a Tizer and Bezique fuelled piece of pure Pop escapism, mercifully immune to the existential ennui that I would ultimately peddle as Alistair Angst. That’s memory for you though.
Other members of Dolly Mixture have made some special records in the intervening decades of course. Debsey Wykes has made some amazing records as Birdie, whilst she and Hester Smith made that tremendous mini-album as Coming Up Roses for Billy Bragg’s Utility label in 1989. Also on that label in the same year was the ‘Arriving Late In Torn And Filthy Jeans’ set by New Zealand’s Dead Famous People, featuring one Donna (Dons) Savage who would of course provide the vocals for Saint Etienne’s cover of The Field Mice’s ‘Kiss and Make Up’. Puzzle pieces and all that.
Aside from a couple of limited run CDRs put out in 2018 and 2019 with husband Steve Lovell as Spelt, however, little had been heard from Rachel until the gorgeous soft-pop jewel of ‘Primrose Hill’ emerged out of the blue back in February 2021. Then, opening with a refrain surely borrowed from Strawberry Switchblade’s ‘Trees and Flowers’ (or was it the other way round?), a fabulous new take on Dolly Mixture’s ‘Down The Line’ followed a month later, with an album promised imminently.
Despite a teasing wait of another six months, the ‘Picture In Mind’ did finally materialise in late October, adding another eight songs to the mix to create an album that glistens with early morning dew and a delicate confidence that by turns calls to mind Stereolab at their sweetest or the sublime bedroom pop sophistication of Sophie and Peter Johnston. At times too it recalls the terrific Dusty Trails project by Josephine Wiggs and Vivian Trimble from way back at the turn of the Century, or going further back still, perhaps, to the source of Brazilian bossapop and French we-we that Gane and the aforementioned Stereolab gang helped shine spotlights onto. Digging the same sounds and sharing the same archaeological excavations, perhaps. And perhaps it is too easy to overlook or misplace the finds from those trenches, so maybe it is also time to dig out those old Kostars and Luscious Jackson records again.
For now, though, I’m spinning ‘Picture In My Mind’ again and revelling in its delicious warmth as an antidote to inevitable end of year chills.