Saint Etienne – So Tough

Their debut album Foxbase Alpha had made a reasonable dent on the charts in late 1991 thanks to the memorable but minor hit Only Love Can Break Your Heart, and Saint Etienne had started to gain a reputation as one of the more creative forces in popular music. Second album So Tough is a pop concept album about growing up, which is such an unusual thing that it’s definitely worth a listen.

The album takes its name from a late Beach Boys album, Carl and the Passions – “So Tough”, the first track of which also provided the title of the compilation You Need a Mess of Help to Stand Alone, which followed later the same year.

It opens with Mario’s Cafe, which for those of you like me who can’t place exactly which song that is, it’s the one that goes “When we leave for work / Tuesday morning 10am”. It’s a pleasant pop song with just a hint at the start of the experimental sounds and samples that had stylised their debut album.

This album appeared in 1993, fifteen years ago this week, and by then, Sarah Cracknell had become a fully-fledged member. But there was still space for the pleasant instrumentals that had made up so much of the first release, so Railway Jam is an entirely appropriate inclusion at this point.

There are a few miniature breaks on here, of which Date with Spelman is the first, and then occasional collaborator Q-Tee turns up to rap on Calico, a pleasant but somewhat forgettable foray into hip hop. Then comes the glorious Avenue, released as a seven-minute single in late 1992. This was actually the opening single for this album, which may seem a little surprising until you find yourself a couple of minutes into the track, utterly captivated by it.

Then comes the huge hit single You’re in a Bad Way, which peaked at number 12 just before the album came out. While the single was augmented by samples from Brighton Rock, the album goes for the brilliant “Lose himself in London” quote from Billy Liar. It’s a great song, wonderfully catchy and with a splendid 1960s backing track, although it is just a little disappointing that the album version isn’t quite as good as the single release.

Memo to Pricey carries us through to the adorable Hobart Paving, the adorable suburban piano piece that appeared as half of a double a-side with Who Do You Think You Are as the third single from this album, and performed well on the charts.

This isn’t really Saint Etienne‘s finest work though – Leafhound is pleasant, but it doesn’t exactly go anywhere, and the chord changes seem a bit forced. Clock Milk and Conchita Martinez follow, and while you can absolutely see how they fit in with the narrative of the album, they don’t exactly stand well on their own. So it might come as something of a surprise to learn that this album, buoyed by its great singles, is actually the group’s highest-charting, having peaked at number 7.

There isn’t a huge amount left here, truth be told. No Rainbows for Me is nice, but dull to say the least. Then there’s another interlude track, Here Comes Clown Feet, and the dancey closing piece Junk the Morgue, and the album is rounded out with one last mini-track, Chicken Soup. It’s probably fair to say that things tail off a bit towards the end.

But if you take a bigger picture view, and see So Tough as the second step in Saint Etienne‘s growth as a group, which sees them starting to reach maturity over the next couple of albums, this is a strong step – the three great singles and its chart performance are definitely testament to that. It might not be the best album when you listen to it on its own, but it’s certainly an important album.

If you can, try to track down the double CD deluxe version of So Tough, which appears to still be available at the time of writing.

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