Various Artists
Saint Etienne Present Songs For Mario’s Café


any find Saint Etienne insincere, as though perfectionism in craft somehow precluded genuine emotion. That sits poorly with me; generally, we find works ranging from Smile and Sgt. Pepper’s to Loveless and Dummy pretty real, despite the fact that they couldn’t be more rehearsed and polished. This overview of influences and admirations should cue doubters that plenty of deep emotional grit can be found beneath the layers of gloss applied to Bob, Peter, and Sarah’s eminently huggable soul. Even though the compilation is primarily the work of the oh-so-modish gentlemen, it’s hard not to see it as a full group effort—after this many years, there must be some mind-meld going on.

The selections, primarily recorded between 1965 and 1973, have an eerie feeling of alternative reality. The few that are familiar call to mind perhaps nonexistent covers that are a little slicker, more modern than what’s actually heard. Perhaps it’s because nearly all the songs have some little twist that brings them beyond simple genre classification. Or, it may be that, on the third time through, one goes from clearly recognizing three or four tracks to knowing the majority on the basis of their suddenly iconic status.

Underlying themes pertain to the era’s essentials: the testing of amorous pairing, both internally and externally; self- and group-enlightenment, ostensibly without the heavy drugs; the power of what would’ve been considered “alternative culture” rhythmic and spiritual influence. Thrown into a mix of current material, most any of these tracks would seem highly cheesy. Taken in this context, they’re flat-out joyous.

Stylistically, it’s a dollar-a-pound bag containing Mod caps, Nehru jackets, paisley smocks, thigh-high white pleather boots, go-go skirts, and the occasional implied switchblade or set of brass knuckles. Despite being of an era, most of these tunes seem sidelined and somewhat timeless, gathered up just for this set. Certainly, many will recognize the late doo-wop of the Crows’ “Gee”—“Ohh, myy, oh-ho-ohh ohh gee, how I love that girl…hold me baby squeeze me, never let me go…”. “Come on Back to Me” by The Foundations is recollectable, with its falsetto “I need the kind of lovin’ you can give me, so baby come on back to meeee. Since the day you walked out on me everything’s a shade of black”. And New York City’s “Take My Hand” should certainly be familiar. These savvy selections, though, seem merely to anchor the truly inspired choices.

Balancing out the aforementioned examples of popular sentiment are a host of obscurities from various branches of urbane soul. Candy and the Kisses “Are You Trying to Get Rid of Me Baby” is a marvel of committed/obsessed emotion, mid-way between Motown and Memphis, and doing the Mashed Potato all over some poor guy. Later, we hear the Sapphires singing “Let’s Break Up for a While.” It’s a glorious take on “Downtown” (nearly concurrent), but sultrier and more knowing, with one of the most effective two-note basslines ever heard. It’s a Rock of Gibraltar, 3 ½ beats followed by 4 ½ beats to make a two bar thrum that says Slowest Hand Ever. Then it has the nerve to pick up on the chorus; it’s still below average tempo, but the contrast sounds like a hyperactive Sara Lee. It’s accompanied by super-slinky percussion, and the lyric: “We had another quarrel last night, but lately with you, I can do nothing right…we were so happy, the envy of all, but something’s gone wrong, though our love is strong, we just can’t get along. Oh, baby, let’s put our love on trial, let’s break up for a while.” And that’s delivered in a voice to rival late-prime Irma Thomas.

There’s plenty of twang to go with the torch, too. The Searchers’ “Don’t Hide it Away” comes off as a great combo of Lee Hazelwood and Leonard Cohen. “She’s Not Like Any Girl” by The Berries sounds like a precursor to The Left Banke backed by Sergio Leone, and The Packabeats’ “The Traitors” is the great lost link between skiffle, surf, and funk. OK, Bob & Pete are officially cooler than Quentin Tarantino (and then some).

Natch, no survey of the era would be complete without psychedelia. Again, though, it’s a case of a slight molecular difference in their aids. Donovan’s “Sunny Goodge Street” is somehow self-satisfied and striving at the same time, mellow, without slipping into the torpor so common to contemporaries. The track is also orchestrated so superbly that one thinks Bacharach and Mingus both, even before noticing the latter’s namecheck. It’s fairly telling that both Judy Collins and Marianne Faithful felt the track worth covering.

That’s mentioning nine of the twenty-five tracks here. The variety is more kaleidoscopic than can be covered, but I’ll try a run at the set’s core. Derrick Herriot’s “Do I Worry” is an uneasy, yet languid, step into lover’s rock. It leads into “Getting Nowhere in a Hurry,” one of those unclassifiable small-chorus slicked-up piano ballads rinky-dinking an attempt at full-blown spiritual. Next up is The Chairmen of the Board singing “I’m packing up my cares and weary mind / I’m on my way to a better place / I’m leaving hate and prejudice behind…I’m on my way to a better place, where love is free, to hell with hate.” It occupies a mythical nexus of early 70’s Detroit, Philly and New York, a place where curmudgeons are confined to their fearsome little apartments.

From that universal, the leap to Honey Cone’s very personal “The Day I Found Myself” is sheer genius. Conflating the wondrously communal and ultimately independent sides of this level of soulfulness is where Saint Etienne have always excelled, further driven home by the slide into the aforementioned “Let’s Break Up for a While.” The succession of emotions revealed by this run of songs is counterintuitive; it runs and leaps, rather than following a linear path. Maybe that’s why so many don’t get the band. If they can’t make the same leaps, maybe they don’t deserve to.

Reviewed by: Dan Miron

Reviewed on: 2005-02-24

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