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Review: Saint Etienne celebrates music and moments at the Fonda

November 04, 2012|By Randall Roberts | Los Angeles Times Pop Music Critic
  • Saint Etienne: Bob Stanley, left, Sarah Cracknell and Pete Wiggs.
Saint Etienne: Bob Stanley, left, Sarah Cracknell and Pete Wiggs. (Courtesy Saint Etienne/Press…)

Vocalist Sarah Cracknell waved her white feather boa at the crowd while introducing one of the final songs of her group’s Saturday night set at the Fonda in Hollywood. “This is the first song I ever sang with Saint Etienne,” she said, “and I’ve been wearing one of these ever since.”

Indeed, the boa was Cracknell’s companion throughout Saint Etienne’s gig, the final show of a U.S. tour of the States in support of its excellent new record “Words and Music by Saint Etienne.” The buoyant blond wore a form-fitting sequined dress, and as keyboardists/programmers/co-founders Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley broke into “Nothing Can Stop Us,” a beat-heavy romp propelled by the sampled rhythm of a 1967 Dusty Springfield song, Cracknell started dancing with a graceful nonchalance.

Etienne’s track, from its first album, “Foxbase Alpha,” hit the top of the U.S. dance charts for one brief moment on July 4, 1992, a now-distant twinkle of proof that the British rave revolution of the late 1980s was redefining the dance floor all over the world.

You could see the passage of time on the faces of both Saint Etienne and its fans. Formed in the wake of the British "Summer of Love" that birthed rave culture, the group during its rise harnessed the Ecstasy-fueled euphoria that propelled the movement. Within that budding world, it shone light on the private relationships inside the peak-hour music and dancing, the pearls of time within the frenzy that blossom into the real kind of love.

That was decades ago, though, as evidenced by the way her lyrics expressed the passage of time. In early songs, Cracknell sang about it in days, weeks and months. “You’ve come a long way since September,” she offered tartly on the classic dancefloor stomper “Sylvie,” about jealousy among teenage sisters over the same boy. On “Lose That Girl,” from its excellent 1998 album “Good Humour,” she sang about “last Saturday,” trying to comfort a friend spurned by his lover. “On her radio she’d turn the disco down,” sang Cracknell, citing obvious evidence of the girl’s incompatibility.

On the songs from “Words and Music ...” she addressed time in years and decades. One of the evening’s highlights, “Haunted Jukebox,” was pushed forward by Wiggs’ and Stanley’s tight, big rhythms while Cracknell expressed the exuberant connection between melody and memory, how a song can be a portal to emotional time travel.

“The spirit’s in the air/ It’s like the tunes are everywhere,” she sang, describing how a song heard in the present pushed her to recall when she was 15 and hearing the Smiths’ “Hand in Glove” for the first time, about love built over shared 45s, and the reality that “it goes much further than the tune/ When every record in the room/ May leave me haunted.” (Cracknell may have inherited her cinematic eye; her late father was Derek Cracknell, Stanley Kubrick’s assistant director, a role he also served in classic James Bond films of the '70s.)

Most impressive about Saint Etienne on Saturday — besides that, excluding Cracknell’s warm voice, the only acoustic instrument employed was a cowbell (courtesy longtime backing vocalist Debsey Wykes) — was the grace with which the group approached the process of aging, even as they delivered a string of dancefloor bangers. 

Electronic dance music has historically been built for young hearts able to push the limits of body and mind with little regard for the Monday morning clock-punch. As the music moves into middle age, though, artists have faced a choice. Either rage against the passage of time, as Madonna has often done, by futilely trying to connect with the out-all-night kids inevitably drawn to peer-made music. 

The better option is to strive toward what Saint Etienne achieved on Saturday night and throughout its  work: celebrate life, joy and music and the wicked combination that continually redefines melodies and memory as time passes and we (hopefully) accrue wisdom and perspective. 

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Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit

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