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Saint Etienne
So Tough & Sound Of Water reissues Jude Rogers , September 10th, 2009 06:52

Ten years ago this month, on a late summer Saturday, I moved to London. I was a Welsh girl out of water. I lived in the red-bricked, faded beauty of a Victorian mansion block, cheek-to-jowl with an aspiring German model, a sixteen-stone Mod, an American intern, a Bruce Springsteen wannabe, and his 70-something, wheelchair-bound grandfather. It was cheap, but I wasn't very cheerful. I cowered in my dark, tiny, bedroom most days, chain-smoking roll-ups to the sighs of Tindersticks, Massive Attack and the rustle of my Masters essays. London, I breathed out, was not the place for me.

That Christmas, back home by the estuary, something changed me completely. I spotted it on the grey, musty shelves of a retail park superstore, a CD in a cracked jewel case, a totem passed by. It cost £2.99, it was by Saint Etienne, and it was called Too Young To Die. I bought it, took it home, listened with wet eyes and a warm spine, and brought it back to Paddington with me. I loved everything about this little Greatest Hits collection — 'Hug My Soul''s glorious key change into the chorus; the way in which Sarah Cracknell's cracked, keening voice made me question my sexuality; how 'Only Love Will Break Your Heart' broke mine every time. And then there were Julie Burchill's glorious liner notes — still my favourites ever — talking of how "the spirit of Saint Etienne resides in several select sites and states of mind . . . the smell and sheen of a dismayed seaside town the day after summer . . . sorrow, often so sumptuous that it feels like pleasure."

I fell in love with London soon after, starting a fanzine called Smoke, becoming a writer by accident, and a resident by design. This is something I still credit, almost totally, to the work of Saint Etienne. They have never left me, either. Even when London has nearly killed me, they have lifted me up, smoothed my brow, held my heart. Vividly, 1994's Tiger Bay takes me back to the Regent's Canal, and long, sad walks to work; while last year's bigger 'best of', London Conversations, bound the wounds of a broken relationship. The only two records that have passed me by are the two reissues I find here — 1993's So Tough, despite being full of early songs I know from Too Young To Die, and 2000's The Sound Of Water, which produced 'Heart Failed (In A Back In A Taxi)', a song that struck a particular chord in the gloom of last winter.

On first listen, So Tough sounds bright-eyed, dreamy-hearted and pea-coated, just as I was when I first fell in love with the capital. But listen deeper. It's a strangely ghostly record, a wispy maze of English memories that probably plays even more poignantly now than it did then — it being a relic in itself, sixteen years on, after all. Also, as a comment on British culture, So Tough take its cues from The Smiths, looking at those changing years between the 50s and 60s — scattering extracts of British film dialogue throughout the record, just like Morrissey used to with literary references in his lyrics. Crucially, however, it is not held down by the past. So Tough also shimmers with the sensations of 1993, from the perspective of a pop-lover who reads both Smash Hits and the NME. In 'Mario's Cafe', daisy age flutes carry lines about the KLF and Prince Bee from PM Dawn, while 'Conchita Martinez' namechecks that year's female tennis No. 1, while mixing the rhythms of techno, thick, grungy guitars, and the glamorous glitter of early 90s house.

There are some lovely curios, too, on So Tough, that flag up the band's interests in textures and drama. Take 'Railway Jam''s lovely tangle of sounds from a train station; the 23-second John Barry pastiche 'Memo To Pricey' features the horn-haired music critic talking about double measures; while 'No Rainbows' could be the first breath of life from Broadcast. 'Calico' also reminds us that Saint Etienne didn't always have Sarah Cracknell as their frontwoman, with the brilliant Q-Tee taking on lead vocals, and sounding like a ghostly forerunner of Speech Debelle. So Tough is a record poised on a pivotal moment between the past and the future; loving the Britain that had been, celebrating the Britain that was there, and holding a lovely, glowing torch towards the Britain that was to come.

Seven years on, Sound Of Water was a very different creature. It's a much more mature record, as its title suggests — full of reflection and stillness, but still with a sheen on its silvery surface. It's also driven by a soft mesh of electronic sounds, which weave a new sense of melancholy. Even more significantly, the 60s are long gone, as if Saint Etienne are trying to suppress the Britpop movement that followed So Tough's clarion call. This is pop etherised upon a table — icily glamorous, Ballardian, eerie.

But Sound Of Water, like So Tough, still has a tender, beating heart. The instrumentals here are particularly beautiful — 'Aspects Of Lambert' yearning as gorgeously as The Smiths' 'Oscillate Wildly'; 'The Place At Dawn' tumbling out of the speakers as gentle as a sigh; 'Late Morning' using Sarah Cracknell's 'ahhh's to highlight the sleepiness, and mournfulness, of the piano and strings that carry our emotions along.

Compared to her breathy, often off-key delivery on So Tough, Cracknell's voice has also gained sensitivity with age. On the beautiful 'Sycamore', she sings of remembrances fondly — "I'm thinking of them, I'm thinking of streams/Through the air the night was so long and dizzy" — before striking a gorgeously menacing note at its finish: "Let's travel again to fall upon three chimneys/Well, the door was low, you were mistaken." Through the electronic bubbles and burbles of 'Don't Back Down', her sense of self emerges, clear as a bell ("locked down in Fortis Green, your mother hated me"), while on the nine-minute pop epic 'How We Used To Live', her slow, spoken word passages, low in the mix, add a necessary note of menace to the proto-Girls Aloud pop. "Up the riverbank and under the viaduct", she monotones, "the causeway full of nice cars, the sand a distant dream . . ." before her words tumble into misty sentences that are impossible to discern — something about a hijack, a cinema, thoughts swirling in the sounds, memories whirling in the ether.

As I get to know So Tough and Sound Of Water, I am gaining more scope for memory, more associations to work with, and more moments of beauty for hazy late summer Saturdays. At the moment, two tracks are haunting me particularly. Firstly, there is 'Hobart Paving' from So Tough, a song I have known for nearly a decade, with its tales of rain falling "like Elvis tears" and a girl picking "up her shoes from the red-brick stairway". This is me, aged 21, about to begin her adventure. Then there is 'We're In The City', from Sound Of Water's second disc — a euphoric disco track about driving through the capital at night, winding down the window to let in some light, "and pausing to catch your breath in the rain/In the city, you're home again". This is me, aged 31, watching showers shimmer in the neon, and the ordinary details of life gaining an extraordinary glow. I am listening to it now, in my slightly bigger, lighter bedroom, chain-drinking tea to its sighs and the rustle of my post, and my invoices, and my older, softer bones, and my older, better life. London, I breathe in, is still the place for me.