Smash the System (Singles and More) by Saint Etienne (Review)

A two-disc compilation that serves as an excellent introduction to Saint Etienne’s pristine, immaculate dance pop.
Smash The System, Saint Etienne

I was on my way to the register, CDs in hand, when I stopped by the used bin on a lark. Imagine my delight and surprise when, shining there at the start of the “S” section, was this wondrous compilation. To think that someone had actually decided to part with it, all for a couple of bucks that was probably spent on Ramen noodles and video rental that night… personally I find it a bit unthinkable, but I guess ya gotta do what ya gotta do. All I know is that I practically floated out of the record store that afternoon.

My introduction to the glory of Saint Etienne came a few years back when I was living with a roommate and his large vinyl collection. I had heard about Saint Etienne on various mailing lists such as the mighty 4AD-L, and their name was usually followed by a string of superlatives. Rummaging through my roommate’s vinyl, I happened upon a pristine copy of Too Young to Die, a compilation of the group’s singles from the early ’90s. I loaded up the turntable, lowered the needle, and knew, within seconds, that I was in the presence of greatness.

There was (and is) something incredibly sleek and refined about Saint Etienne’s music, and yet they also displayed a whimsical, kitschy side as well. The songwriting of Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs was topnotch, wedding catchy-as-anything melodies with rhythms that would sound at home in Europe’s finest discotheques. And then there was the group’s secret weapon, the vocals of the one and only Sarah Cracknell.

I’ve always considered Cracknell to be one of the great pop singers in recent history. Her rich voice could be sophisticated, coy, flirtatious, dreamy, and charming, often all within the same song. Whereas many female pop vocalists, especially those that fall within the electronic/dance realms, hid behind diva histrionics, Cracknell’s vocals were refreshingly natural and real. It would be just as easy to imagine her singing down at the local coffeehouse with nothing so much as an acoustic guitar as it would be to picture her at the trendiest nightclub in front of banks of synths and sequencers. Regardless of the setting, the grace and charm of her vocals would probably never waver.

Saint Etienne was never some faceless hit factory, the idea of some pop svengali. Rather, beneath the glossy production and dancehouse mixes was a youthful naiveté, a breathless abandon. The result? Working with a style that’s not well known for producing music that stands the test of time (try listening to any early ’90s dance music without grimacing), Saint Etienne produced music of truly timeless appeal.

That’s what makes going through these two discs such a pleasure. Having listened to the collection many times since I chanced upon it, I can honestly say that Saint Etienne’s finest material never wears out its welcome. No matter how many times I hear a track like “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” (a surprisingly tasty Neil Young cover that would make Abba green with envy), the anthemic “Join Our Club” (with Cracknell cooing “We all want to kiss the sky/Join our club/We’re going to try” like a call to arms for clubbers the world over), or the effervescent “You’re In A Bad Way,” I still get the same thrill as when I first heard them on my roommate’s turntable.

Sadly, I was never able to find Too Young to Die, as it had gone out of print years ago (and import costs proved prohibitive to me, a poor college student at the time). I picked up the odd Saint Etienne record here and there, but I always longed to have one handy collection of all their singles, without the odd sound collages that would pop up between the hits. Poring over the tracklisting of Smash the System, though, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Nearly everything from Too Young to Die is included on here, with the notable exception of “I Was Born On Christmas Day” (an outstanding duet with the Charlatans’ Tim Burgess).

That aside, Smash the System exceeds Too Young to Die in every way, pulling material from all of the band’s releases up to 1999, including Good Humor and The Misadventures of Saint Etienne (a Japan-only release). The only major releases not covered on these two discs are 2000’s The Sound of Water (which saw the band delving into more atmospheric territory) and 2002’s Finisterre (which found the band as skilled as ever).

I confess that I find myself spending more time with the first disc. But with tracks like “Nothing Can Stop Us” (with it’s trilling flute arrangement), “Who Do You Think You Are” (featuring disco strings and a bassline that handles like a dream), and “Pale Movie” (think flamenco guitar meets Ibiza), can you blame me?

Even so, disc two has plenty of charm of its own. For starters, it features one of Saint Etienne’s finest tracks ever, the glorious “He’s On The Phone.” Here, all of the group’s elements come together in fine form. The beats and synth lines are as club-friendly as they come, but Cracknell’s vocals and lyrics imbue the track with palpable sense of heartache. In lesser hands, it’d become another cloying dancehall number, but Saint Etienne’s genius has always been in taking seemingly disposable filler and imbuing it with warmth and emotion, and they do so here resulting in pure gold.

As the second disc progresses, the music gets a bit more diverse and divergent. The songs taken from Good Humor find the band stripping away much of their gloss and sheen. While the process revealed that, yes, there were actual songs beneath all of the glitter, tracks like “Wood Cabin” and “Lose That Girl” still feel less vibrant and alive than earlier works.

The material from The Misadventures… feels especially out of place. While it does bring an interesting diversity, it might also be the band’s most lightweight, and (dare I say) disposable material. The harpsichord and synth strings of “Jack Lemmon” might make for a nice theme for a jaunty British sit-com, and “Saturday” feels like an outtake from the Good Humor sessions.

But with two discs filled to the brim with songs (both discs run over 70 minutes), and with material taken from nearly a decade’s worth of recordings, there’s an astonishing amount of quality and cohesion. The album does have its slow moments; after the infectious high of “Who Do You Think You Are,” you’re immediately brought back down to earth by the nostalgic balladry of “Hobart Paving,” which plays like a movie flashback liberally filled with old photos and pensive expressions. While Saint Etienne will be forever remembered for their more energetic numbers, these slower moments further prove the band’s ability for writing truly affecting songs, regardless of the BPM.

Used bins have usually treated me pretty well. I’ve come away with some great deals in the past. But finding Smash the System was like finding the pearl of great price. Whoever sold this CD might have left the store with a few more dollars in their pocket, but I assure you that I’m the one who got the better end of the deal.

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