Cor! Eh? You beauty! (Nudge, Nudge). Knowotoimean? (Adopts Sid James cackly wheeze). I mean, ‘oo wouldn’t? Eh? Eh! Ow’s yer father? Eh? Eh? She’d get it! And no mistake! Let’s slip into sumfink more comfortable, shall we?
Yeah, let’s slip into something more comfortable. Like the honeyed tones of La Cracknell and her backing band of boffins and beard strokers tackling some of the finest moments in thinking man’s pop. With mixed results. Saint Etienne annoy me. Not in the way that wasps annoy me. Or paper rustlers in the cinema. Or blue-blooded ‘n bigoted Rangers fans. Or those paranoid green-tinted Cel’ic supporters and their uncouth manager after a decision goes against them. But Saint Etienne get my goat. I can’t put my finger on it or tell you exactly why. There’s no one reason. I’ve got tons of their stuff, vinyl and CD, bought in faithful chronological order as and when released, up to a point around How We Used To Live. I’ve always liked their way with a sixties-inspired piece of London pop and the sly wink of an eye towards the reference points therein. They’re a true ‘record collection’ band, that’s for sure, but with that comes a feeling that they’re just a wee bit too hip for their own good, just a shade too arch for those in the know and slightly smug in the knowledge that no-one is quite like them. Suffering from something of an identity crisis, they’re too ‘indie’ for pop when they themselves’d probably consider themselves too pop even for pop.
That said, they probably wet their collective knickers when asked to produce a version of Kylie covered Nothing Can Stop Us with a coolness that even Sarah would find difficult to cultivate. This was Kylie BH (Before Hot Pants), the Kylie of mid 90s hell, when only Nicky Wire and ironic students paid her any attention. And here she was, covering obscure, non-charting singles built around old Dusty Springfield samples. Of course. Great version, Kylie! Really!
Saint Etienne’s best known cover is surely Only Love Can Break Your Heart, a pre-Cracknell track where they dismantled whiny old Neil Young’s campfire strumalong of angst and re-tooled it as a Soul II Soul-styled shuffler for the dancefloor. But you knew that already. Dig deeper into the Saint Etienne ouvre and you’ll find all manner of cover versions. Available on the rare-as-can-be fanclub-only Boxette, you’ll find their version of David Bowie‘s Absolute Beginners. I saw them do this live, at the Mayfair in Glasgow, with a pre-fame Pulp supporting. I’ll need to dig out the ticket some time, as the band’s name is written as St Etiene, with one ‘n’. Anyway, their version was rubbish that night (no Bowie aping bap-bap-ba-ooos, surely the best bit?) and the studio version, despite the inclusion of the aforementioned bap-bap-ba-ooos, remains kinda rubbish to this day. Some shouty sampled bit or other by the boys whilst Sarah sounds like a Dalek on downers. Not their finest moment. Maybe they should’ve tackled The Jam track of the same name instead.
On the Deluxe Edition of So Tough, you’ll find them having a go at Teenage Fanclub‘s Everything Flows. A staple of TFC’s live set since their first gig, Fannies fans froth at the mouth for its meandering Neil Youngesque solos and melancholic ruminations on life. Saint Etienne, surely having a laugh at our expense, render it practically unlistenable. Now, some folks say that the best cover versions are when the band takes the song and makes it their own (see, for example, Only Love Can Break Your Heart), but when the heart and soul of the track (in this case the insistent, wailing guitars) are replaced by synth washes and a politely skittering drum machine so bland a yoga teacher would have trouble chilling out to them, well, you can imagine….
Going some way to redeem themselves, this year found Saint Etienne taking a shot at the holiest of holies, The Beach Boys‘ Wouldn’t It Be Nice. It‘s not bad – starting acapella before morphing into a soft focus mush of warm harmonies, ticking clocks and half-speed backing tapes, keen scholars of Wilson pop will easily spot the odd nod to the Smile-ear Barnyard amongst the mix. See – they’re too fucking smart for their own good, that Saint Etienne.
I love ’em really. Wrinkles ‘n all…