I expected to be indifferent to Finisterre
. I can't remember the last time I listened to 2000's Sound of Water
, and that album offered relatively little hope that Saint Etienne would return to making the sort of frothy techno-disco meringues that first drew me to their sound. There were moments of inspiration, yes, but in general, the group seemed content to wallow in syrupy, drum-machine-assisted sixties pop ballads.
Happily, they've done a rather decisive about-face; where Sound of Water was relaxed and pastoral, Finisterre is confident and urban. You can even hear the transition echoed in the instrumental "Language Lab": the folky warmth of acoustic guitar and sighing strings conjures images of rolling green hills -- and then the flutes come in and the song shifts, as if you've passed through a brief, dark tunnel and popped out in the middle of a busy high street. It's like a Sunday morning stroll, full of sun-dappled shopfronts, improbably friendly hipster neighbors and delicious breakfasty smells...
But I'm getting ahead of myself. I've ignored the delicious "Action", which glitters with the cheesy but blissful goodness of a cut-rate Ibiza vacation (former Dubstar fans take note!); if Sound of Water had a track this compelling, it wouldn't be filed away in the unplumbed depths of my CD collection. I've also skipped over the pulsing "Amateur" ("Janine / just nineteen / joined a pyramid scheme / didn't think it mean / to inflate / her estate / left it too late."), which offers a more significant revelation: Saint Etienne have discovered electroclash. Or, perhaps more accurately, electroclash has discovered Saint Etienne.
Remember "Heart Failed (In the Back of a Taxi)"? Saint Etienne had sussed the whole electro lark long before Ladytron et al made the scene. I'm not saying they laid the foundation for the trend; Sarah Cracknell may not be above giving voice to abject lyrical banality, but she's incapable of the lack of emotion required by "new wave" vocals -- and I mean that as a compliment. Perhaps that's what gives "Amateur" and the similarly trend-friendly "New Thing" a little extra heft -- you get the core sound without the attendant coldness. It'll come in handy on those chilly evenings when you think you're the only person at School Disco who still has a soul.
Plenty of gems are ahead. "Shower Scene" offers a highly accessible disco-house workout driven by powerful beats, and "The Way We Live Now" sustains the urban mood with an extended, New Orderish instrumental sequence, saving the vocals for its final minutes.
Rapper Wildflower guests on "Soft Like Me", a track clearly destined to be licensed by a shampoo or lotion manufacturer (if not written for precisely that purpose), and her contribution is the make-or-break element. If Wildflower's accented rap doesn't work for you, there's not much left besides the tune's punchy beats and insipid chorus ("Hey / don't you want to be / soft like me?"); you'll probably sing it for days, but you'll hate yourself for doing so.
There are a few gulfs. The double-bill of "Summerisle" and "Stop and Think It Over" is a near-fatal slowdown; you won't appreciate them 'til you've digested Finisterre's more immediate material. The closers fare better, and the mid-tempo title track, in which Cracknell offers a spoken narration more involving than the average Ladytron vocal, is an effective ending. There's no sense of closure, per se -- the ending seems more like an intermission, pushing for another go-round.
Add to this bubbly urban sprawl a set of cryptic, track-by-track introductions from UK actor Michael "Call me the Valeyard" Jayston, and you've got an album that's a good deal quirkier than anything Saint Etienne have ever done. Hell, they named the thing after a shipping forecast region...
Where previous Saint Etienne albums -- even the good ones -- left me a little too relaxed and ambivalent to over-indulge, Finisterre inspires confident and judicious use of the "Repeat" button. It may not be the best album of their career, but it's certainly the most interesting -- and a reliable cure for your indifference.