Saint Etienne Return With Sense Of Good Humor

Back after four years, British trio favors traditional sounds over techno on latest album.

Not many bands would point to the soundtrack to Charles Schultz's classic children's cartoon, "Peanuts," when asked about influences for their latest album.

But that's exactly how vocalist Sarah Cracknell and keyboardist Pete Wiggs of the British trio Saint Etienne explained the new dimensions of dance-pop explored on their recently released record, Good Humor.

"We got really into the '60s and '70s soul, blues and jazz reminiscent of Charlie Brown music," Wiggs, 32, said from New York, referring to the music composed by famed jazz musician Vince Giraldi to accompany the cartoon based on the tales of Schultz's famous anti-hero. "We really went after that piano sound, that soundtrack feel."

Recorded in Sweden with Tore Johansson, producer of that country's hit sugar-pop act the Cardigans, Good Humor -- which was released in the U.S. on Sub Pop Records -- marks an expanded sound for Saint Etienne. For the first time in the band's eight-year career, standard instrumentation takes precedence over synthetic sounds.

"We've already explored technology and sampling and computer-generated music quite extensively and kind-of wanted to try something different, really, to keep it exciting," the 32-year-old Cracknell said. "It's more of a challenge for us to get that organic sound."

After releasing their third album, Tiger Bay (1994), Saint Etienne took a four-year hiatus before recording Good Humor. During the break, Wiggs and Stanley ran the label Emidisc, achieving some success with the pop-punk group Kenickie. Meanwhile, Cracknell launched her solo career with the album Lipslide.

"I only wanted to do that one album, because I had several songs I'd written when I was younger," Cracknell said of returning to the group after her brief solo stint. "It was quite a relief starting work on Good Humor, because it can be quite lonely doing a solo album. It's a lot harder work."

With lyrics contributed by all three members -- Cracknell, Wiggs and keyboardist Bob Stanley -- Good Humor's songs make for easy listening as Cracknell sings in her honey-tinged voice over a backdrop of lounge-y, retro pop. On the album's first single, "Sylvie," which tells a tale of two sisters competing for the same guy, Cracknell's vocals are wrapped in a classic, girl-group sound, infused with pronounced disco elements.

Elsewhere, Cracknell sings about a girl running over her boyfriend in her Capri, on the equally disco-driven "Goodnight Jack," featuring minor-key synthesizer and flute; the ups and downs of touring life, on the beach-bluesy "Mr. Donut"; and the trauma of getting drunk and being taken advantage of by a photographer, on "The Bad Photographer."

As the album's most straight-up, guitar-pop song, the latter is a standout, with an irresistibly hummable chorus and lush, yet crisp grooves.

The band, which debuted with the album Foxbase Alpha (1992), was formed in 1988 by then-U.K. rock journalist Stanley and his partner Wiggs, as a group focusing on a dance-pop sound. The band recruited vocalist Cracknell in 1991 before releasing its first album, which included a hit cover of the Neil Young song "Only Love Can Break Your Heart."

Though the band shows a continued penchant for creating music with a sense of fun, the overall lyrical tone of Good Humor is underpinned by melancholy. "It's good to balance it out, because a lot of the music is light, with a happy feel," Wiggs explained. "I always think the best songs are like that -- something like [Abba's] 'Dancing Queen,' [which] has got these light, silly lyrics but this kind-of sad atmosphere to it."

Wiggs and Cracknell agreed that the break allowed Saint Etienne to make the most fully realized album of their career with Good Humor.

"The funny thing is, it turned out very much how we planned it," Cracknell said. "It almost sounds exactly how I imagined it would sound. That never happens."

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