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The Tao of Pop

The wonderful thing about Tigger is that Tigger‘s a wonderful thing. And the springy-tailed Tigger’s really wonderful because he likes to bounce. Same goes for Saint Etienne, the U.K. trio -- Sarah Cracknell, Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs -- that since 1991 has concocted a contagious pop potion of Modernist sampladelics, self-conscious synth, ‘60s girl-groupish vocals, and the best bounce found between acid psychedelia, the Beach Boys and techno dance.

Yet Saint Etienne’s road has been littered with ”slow“ signs lately, damning fans who relished upbeat confections like ”Only Love Can Break Your Heart,“ ”Hug My Soul“ or half the rare exotica drifting on the band‘s Web site (www.saint.etienne.net). And while their retro-electro and studio diddling are still intact, and, yes, they’ve concocted a magnum opus eight-minute 54-second single with the notorious master of pop pluck and gurgle, Sean O‘Hagan, the group’s latest album, Sound of Water, is 90 percent bounceless. Worse, it follows on the heels of 1999‘s prophetically midtempo EP, Places To Visit.

So where’s the bounce, kids?

”We actually recorded a few bouncy ones for this album,“ shaggy-haired Stanley fesses up over drinks in a Manhattan bar. ”But when it came to sorting out the material, we left them off, because we wanted the whole thing to flow from beginning to end. A lot of our albums before had too obvious a single cropping up in the middle, which sticks out like a sore thumb. But by no means have we abandoned doing up-tempo music.“

”I think it‘s harder to do songs without bounce,“ adds Cracknell, a diva enrobed in a trim, powdery jacket both Martha Stewart and Thierry Mugler would applaud. ”It’s more challenging to do that. With us, it‘s quite easy to bounce.“

Wiggs, of perpetual Cheshire Cat grin and cheek, leans in. ”We’re probably going to react against it with pure bounce next time.“

Until that rain check‘s cashed, the three promise a slew of remixes that should deliver the B-word in spades, including the instantly hummable and totally Etienne single, ”Heart Failed.“ And DJ Paul Van Dyk has enlisted the trio to collaborate on his new single, ”Tell Me Why (The Riddle).“

”The thing with their new album is, they tried to make this very bar-oriented music,“ Van Dyk opines via telephone. ”They’re not as arrogant as you have to be to make that kind of music. It could have a bit more -- what you call a bounce, a bit more intensity.“

Speaking of intensity, things could have been worse. ”We were over in Norway recently, and there was this band called Vomitory,“ Wiggs injects, amused. ”Their album is called Raped in Their Own Blood. That‘s going to be our next style: death-metal Etienne.“

Stanley and Wiggs met as wee aurally obsessed kiddies. ”I used to take these shoe-polish tins and spin them around, humming, pretending I had a tape recorder,“ recalls Stanley, the band’s most ravenous musicaholic. Cracknell, a precocious tunehound herself (”I used to do an underwater Marlene Dietrich impersonation“), joined the pair some years later, after the lads had graduated to real recording equipment and dashed the notion of revolving vocalists.

Their 1991 debut, Foxbase Alpha, was fresh and very bouncy, yet betrayed the group‘s diverse taste in retromodern music (Wiggs references acid folk and ”MacArthur Park“) and talented thievery of it. They’ve collaborated a lot, with the likes of Edwyn Collins (the rare ”Sushi Rider“), Stephen Duffy and French pop star Etienne Daho, who bounced them into the stratosphere with their biggest hit yet, ”He‘s on the Phone.“ Cracknell recorded her own dreamy solo album, the just-now domestically released Lipslide, during a hiatus circa 1997.

Oddly, the present day finds Saint Etienne on Sub Pop, a grunge-oriented label that has recently had the good sense to diversify with foofy pop bands like Looper and Field Mice offshoot Trembling Blue Stars. The Saints recorded Sound of Water at their leisure, with German avant-instrumental outfit To Rococo Rot and the aforementioned O’Hagan taking part, while maintaining tight reins on the crafting of the music.

”It‘s different from the last album in the sense that we didn’t want to hand over the production completely to anyone else,“ Wiggs affirms, referring to the Tore Johansson--helmed Good Humor, which dashed the group‘s usual samples for live instruments and drier vocals. ”We wanted to use people to assist rather than totally take control of the band.“

While bounce may have taken a back seat on the new album, the band haven’t stopped bouncing themselves. ”I got a bit carried away on the weekend, around Spain,“ Wiggs confesses, while Sarah volunteers, ”The last time we were here, we ended up at this lap-dancing club called Shenanigans, which has since burned down!“

She laughs. ”I didn‘t pay for a dance myself.“

”I did,“ Wiggs mumbles. ”Expensive.“


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