There is a dance pop sheen on Saint Etienne’s latest album, “Words and Music by Saint Etienne,” that has seeped into the trio’s previous efforts, but never with such wholehearted and fully realized zest. It’s quite possible that the trio’s lead singer, Brit pop ingenue Sarah Cracknell, could be mistaken for — gasp — Kylie Minogue when she commands “Let’s dance” on the sultry “The Last Days of Disco.”
But in true Saint Etienne fashion, lurking behind the pulsing and immaculately polished melodies is a shadow of sadness. Cracknell describes the musical goulash as both quintessentially British, but also quite Scandinavian.
“There is indeed a bit of melancholy, but then you can dance to it,” Cracknell says on the phone from her home in Oxfordshire. “But that’s a great thing, isn’t it? ABBA always had that. I love things like ‘Dancing Queen.’ I love that juxtaposition.”
Saint Etienne, now in its 22d year of cornering the market on this kind of retro-tinged pop, appears newly revitalized thanks to “Words and Music.” It’s one of the band’s best-reviewed albums in years and has pushed the trio back on tour, bringing them to the US for the first time since 2006 — the band comes to the Paradise Rock Club on Saturday. It’s also Saint Etienne’s first album since 2005’s far more subdued “Tales From Turnpike House.”
The delay between albums brought rumors of a breakup, but Cracknell attributes the delay to the band’s unstructured nature.
“It doesn’t seem so long since we’ve put out ‘Tales From Turnpike House.’ It’s just a really organic process of doing other stuff,” she says. “We’re not master plan people.”
The band was not entirely sedentary during those years. Cracknell, and bandmates Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs, re-released deluxe editions of all eight previous albums. They culled B-sides, unreleased material, rare cover versions, and fan-club-only songs. None of these albums found overwhelming commercial success in the US, but the band does enjoy a cult following of Anglophiles here.
The band also wrote music for a cartoon series, Stanley wrote a book, Cracknell had a baby, and Saint Etienne toured the UK behind a revamped version of its first album, “Foxbase Alpha.”
The three members of Saint Etienne (and most of their audience) are now in their 40s, and after two decades together, the trio were clearly feeling a bit sentimental on “Words and Music.” The album opens with the song “Over the Border,” which tidily sums up the concept: how music shapes us in our youth, and how it evolves in our lives as we get older.
“It would be there for me,” Cracknell says in spoken voice on the song. “And when I was married, and when I had kids, would Marc Bolan still be so important?”
Richard X, the producer who has worked with the band on several projects, attributes Saint Etienne’s longevity to that essential love of music.
“They’ve held together as a band because they’re still good friends, even after all those albums and studio sessions, which is a rarity,” he says. “And I think the fact they are still music fans excited by discovering records, new and old, means they constantly feel the need to make music, to be involved. That’s something that disappears from a lot of people over the years.”
Cracknell confesses that she is somewhat surprised at the band’s longevity. When they first emerged in 1990, Stanley and Wiggs were creating songs with a hodgepodge of samples and beats layered over synthesizers. Cracknell was brought on after Stanley and Wiggs had already begun recording “Foxbase Alpha” with other singers.
“It’s not totally unusual for a band to be together for more than 20 years, but it’s not all that common,” she says. “But when we first started I really didn’t think that a band that pieced bits of things together could really be together that long.”
As they continued recording, she said the nontraditional setup of the band proved to be an advantage.
“None of us plays a particular instrument or a role in the band,” she says. “Well, I sing, but it’s not like a song has to have guitar or drums every time. We can play it, or we just go hire someone to play it. So we’re not restricted in that way. We can change at any time.”
The flexibility is also heard in styles. Where “Words and Music” is a thoughtful disco album, “Good Humor” (1998) was heavily rooted in the 1960s. Stanley is a fan of dance music. Wiggs is an expert on pop music, and Cracknell says that melodies pop into her head, or she “plucks them from thin air.”
“When it comes to their LPs, I think that flexibility is in the group’s DNA,” says Richard X. “They can say, ‘Oh let’s go synth-pop,’ and write a record about records. Or, let’s make an acoustic and electronica album, or this or that. I think ultimately they write great songs, and that always appeals to pop heads like myself.” Continued...