Have you ever been to a Harvester before? Saint Etienne, I suspect, have. One of their most electronic pop works, Finisterre, was first released fifteen years ago this week.
After the brief sound of an amateur football match and the quote I started this piece with, the album opens with first single Action, which is either typically brilliant Saint Etienne or a bit nondescript, depending on your perspective.
Second track Amateur is indisputably great. The huge dance bass line and catchy melody are punctuated beautifully by lyrics like “a piece of Farnborough looking like Tirana”. That’s not the kind of lyric you come across every day.
This album was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a success. The two singles peaked at number 41 and 40 respectively, and the album stalled at number 55. But despite this, it was well received at the time, and I think part of its charm is the vocal interludes from Michael Jayston. The next one talks about “the perverse possibilities of the Barbican,” and you’re reminded of just how firmly the Saint Etienne of this period were rooted in London.
The instrumental Language Lab carries us through to the wonderful second single Soft Like Me, featuring a guest vocal performance by Wildflower. Where the first single might have sounded very familiar, this is quite unique in the group’s catalogue, as Sarah Cracknell‘s crisp vocals accompany Wildflower‘s gentle rhythmic rapping.
Summerisle is a nice gentle interlude, and then Stop and Think it Over takes us back to the more 1960s-sounding pop that characterised the earlier album Good Humor. Then the fantastic Shower Scene, bizarrely released as a Spain-only single at the end of 2002. It’s tempting to wonder why this wasn’t the lead single instead of Action, but if nothing else it’s a nice surprise when you do discover it.
The instrumentals are often among Saint Etienne‘s most interesting moments, and so it is with The Way We Live Now, which for me always evokes memories of the children’s television series How We Used to Live (that’s almost certainly not unintentional either, given the single of that name on the preceding album). It’s not quite instrumental actually, but Sarah’s vocals are more of an accompaniment here than a focus.
New Thing really should have been a single too, with its enormous rippling synth line. It’s catchy, includes some heavily processed vocals, and still sounds very contemporary. Probably. Equally, B92 (the one with the lyric “this is our wall of sound,” in case you had forgotten) is a great semi-experimental piece which takes you back to the group’s 1992 second album So Tough at times.
After all of that, the lo-fi sound of The More You Know does come as a bit of a surprise – and that’s the key thing with this album as it turns out – there’s nothing particularly new, for the most part, but it takes a fascinating journey through the different aspects of Saint Etienne‘s sound. Title track Finisterre is evocative and strange, with a fantastic guest vocal from Sarah Churchill.
Honestly, Finisterre is unlikely to stand out to many when they try to re-evaluate Saint Etienne‘s career. While it’s true that it doesn’t have many catchy hit singles, it’s also one of their most complete, fully thought through albums. Definitely, one of their best. I just wish I knew what the ending was all about…
The newly reissued double CD version of Finisterre should still be widely available from places like this.