Strangely Satisfying

It's no surprise that pundits resort to multihyphenated, proper-noun-laden descriptions when describing the music of Saint Etienne. After all, the British trio is one of those acts whose muse is the entire recorded history of pop culture. Instead of mirroring any one contemporary trend or fad in their art, they happily juggle a multitude of aesthetics, past and present, and more often than not point to intriguing future possibilities. As advanced students of pop, they delight in the vaguely familiar, where allusions are only suggested and influences implied.

Although Sound of Water, Saint Etienne's fifth album, may not be as overtly clever as 1991's Foxbase Alpha or as thematically consistent as 1998's Good Humor, it is as subtle as an Antonio Carlos Jobim tune and as mysteriously satisfying as a lazy summer night.

It's tempting to characterize the new album as mellow electronic-pop, as the soothing timbres and breezy melodies at times recall Air at their Bacharach best. But instead of relying on tried-and-true pop-song constructs for emotional impact, the trio — singer Sarah Cracknell and instrumentalists Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley — cradles the listener in a blanket of shimmering tonalities that persist throughout the entire record, even on songs with a more pronounced backbeat, such as "Heart Failed (In the Back of A Taxi)" (RealAudio excerpt) and the brilliant nine-minute opus, "How We Used to Live" (RealAudio excerpt).

While Cracknell & Co. are more than capable of holding their own, the influences of similarly cross-pollinated collaborators — including post-rock Kraut innovators To Rococo Rot and High Llamas frontman/Stereolab cohort Sean O'Hagan (who arranged several tracks here) — are heard throughout Sound of Water.

Only St. Etienne can immerse you in something as sweet as "Sycamore" (RealAudio excerpt) or "Don't Back Down" (RealAudio excerpt) without diluting the music's unconventional intelligence and beauty.