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Saint Etienne

Travel Edition 1990-2005
Sub Pop

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When groups who haven't yet disbanded choose to release a "best of" record, they wade into choppy waters. The concept is a bit like penning an autobiography before your 50th birthday: Most of us at that point just haven't lived enough life to say anything substantial.

 

But Saint Etienne has always existed on the edge, conceptually speaking. Like Yo La Tengo before them, the band counts at least one member as a former music journalist, and its joining together of two sounds -- '60s Brit pop and house -- played a major role in making dance music an acceptable genre for indie audiences. Most American listeners, though, are only familiar with Saint Etienne from its previous Sub Pop release, 2000's lightly poppy, easy to swallow Sound of Water. And that's where Travel Edition might run into trouble, at least on this side of the pond.

Turns out that Saint Etienne was making considerably stronger house-inflected music during the decade prior to its American indie debut. "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" was one of the band's first club successes, and it's jarring to hear its four-on-the-floor beat open what most new fans will probably expect to be a much more trance-influenced, laid-back album. But Saint Etienne didn't affect the face of British dance pop for nothing, and it makes sense that songs like "Mario's Café" -- which even manages to reference the KLF -- grow more and more addictive with each spin.

Fairly early on in Travel Edition, though, Sarah Cracknell's beautifully silken vocals begin vying for attention, and things smooth out considerably. I'm still of the mind that Saint Etienne sounds best when it plays down the house music and plays up the more simplistic, Stereolab-reminiscent pop songs that rely largely on Cracknell's voice, such as "Heart Failed (in the Back of a Taxi)".

Clocking in at just over an hour and 15 minutes, Travel Edition is a cleverly innovative success from a band that has already managed to influence attitudes about dance music on two continents. I'm not in a position to gauge whether Cracknell and Co. have lived enough life to sensibly gift-wrap their careers after just a decade and a half, but it's no question that this is a substantial document. Suffice it to say, I'm already looking forward to the 50th -anniversary edition. 

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