Saint Etienne – Continental

Continental isn’t a real album. Not in the sense that anyone thought of it as a studio album when it came out, anyway. Initially released two decades ago this week, but only in Japan, this follow-up to Tiger Bay (1994) compiles highlights from the singles, compilations, and other bits and bobs that appeared during the group’s first wilderness period. But then in 2009, it got a surprise inclusion in Saint Etienne‘s series of deluxe edition albums, so now we get to enjoy it as a real album after all.

It opens with the lovely Shad Thames, a bright and chirpy synth instrumental which hadn’t appeared anywhere prior to this point. If you only know them for their pure pop songs, it might come as a surprise to know that Saint Etienne have a great line in quirky instrumental, sample-based, and also long tracks. It’s a perfect opening track.

Burnt Out Car is next, a fantastic song, and in common with the timeless nature of this album, it did eventually appear as a single, but not until the end of 2009, when it heralded the London Conversations compilation. Here, it’s in its original form which first appeared in 1996 on the Casino Classics collection, mixed by Balearico.

Sometimes in Winter follows, another track that appeared in remixed form on Casino Classics, although this time we get Saint Etienne‘s original take. It’s a sweet slice of 1960s-style pop – the kind of thing the group have a justifiable reputation for being very good at. Then comes Winter Melody, kind of a continuation of the previous track, as it takes elements of Psychonauts‘ remix from the earlier release and stretches them a bit. A slightly odd inclusion, but also very much in line with the rest of this release.

One slightly trippy oddity leads into another, the short drum and bass-inspired Public Information Film, and then comes The Process, which was one of the b-sides of He’s on the Phone, presumably the track that necessitated this compilation in the first place. It’s also the track that comes next, and it’s a difficult one not to love. It’s a Motiv8 production, and his mixes do have a tendency to sound pretty much exactly the same as one another, but this one is pretty much as good as they ever got. You’ll find it very difficult not to sing along.

Side B opens with Stormtrooper in Drag, the cover version which originally appeared a few months earlier on the Gary Numan tribute compilation Random. It takes a lot of inspiration from He’s on the Phone too, with a pulsating mid-1990s synth line in the background and occasional rippling piano, and honestly once you accept that it’s a little bit dated now, it’s pretty great too.

Then things go unexpectedly glam with Star, the first of two tracks here on which singer Sarah Cracknell shares a writing credit with Ian Catt, so it’s probably safe to assume that this grew out of her solo album sessions and then maybe gained a bit of Saint Etienne production along the way. Good, but not really up to the standard of most of the other things on here.

The next pair of tracks consists on Down by the Sea and The Sea, which are pretty much two parts of the same song again. The latter appeared on Casino Classics with a lovely spacious, maritime-flavoured drum and bass remix from PFM, whereas the former is a full, although slightly avant garde, song. Together, they make up around ten minutes of music, a fifth of the entire release.

After several minutes of frantic drumming, we’re left with Lonesome, the second Ian Catt collaboration, and closing track Angel. It’s a slightly alarming change of pace, as Lonesome is largely acoustic pop, but it’s rather pleasant. Then Angel is the Broadcast remix which had appeared already on Casino Classics, which is nice, and very ethereal, but definitely not quite as good as Way Out West‘s version which appeared on the same release.

So Continental may or may not be a real album, and it’s definitely a slightly odd mix of tracks, but it’s also rather good, and is definitely worthy of its insertion into Saint Etienne‘s back catalogue.

The double-disc version of Continental gets a reissue of its own in just a few days, and comes with a bonus disc of early and alternative versions from the period. It will be available here.

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Saint Etienne – Casino Classics (Reissue)

Casino Classics had an odd genesis, as albums go – originally released as the limited edition bonus disc for Saint Etienne‘s 1995 singles collection Too Young to Die, it was then reissued a year later with a second disc of its own, and was a pretty comprehensive collection of the remixes of the first few years of their career.

Now it’s back, as a two-disc or four-disc special edition, with a bonus collection of download remixes too. Each with a completely different track listing from either of the original remixes, attempting to bring together the best mixes from the entirety of Saint Etienne‘s career to date. Let’s take a listen to the new two-disc version.

Unfortunately, things have got a bit confused. All the tracks have been shuffled around from the original release, but some of them have also gained bits from their previous neighbours. I’m not as familiar with these as I ought to be, but Andrew Weatherall‘s Mix of Two Halves version of Only Love Can Break Your Heart has stolen about fifteen seconds from somewhere; I think at the start. It’s still a good mix, fascinatingly almost entirely unlike the original in the style of a mix from the late nineties until the second half, when some slightly dubby pieces of the original start to turn up.

But even in two disc form, this is an enormous collection, so I need to cut myself short here, otherwise I won’t be able to mention The Chemical Brothers‘ quite fascinating version of Like a Motorway or The Aloof‘s take on Speedwell.

But honestly nothing on disc one really blows me away particularly. Highlights include Peter Heller‘s charming Midsummer Madness mix of Kiss and Make Up, Monkey Mafia‘s remix of Filthy, and Gordon King‘s lovely – if ultimately rather dated – take on Avenue. Aphex Twin‘s version of Who Do You Think You Are? still leaves me a little underwhelmed, even a couple of decades on.

Towards the end of disc one comes Underworld‘s sweet and mellow version of Cool Kids of Death, and then right at the end is Hug My Soul, remixed by Sure is Pure. Both have lost a little of their duration to other tracks, but together they close the disc in rather good fashion. But on the whole, this disc leaves me feeling that a bit of editing might be beneficial – there are three tracks approaching the ten minute mark and nothing under five, and while the musical merit of many of them shouldn’t be doubted, some do drag a little.

Disc two kicks off on fine – if even longer – form, with David Holmes‘s thirteen minute dark acid version of Like a Motorway. Then comes a blast from the past, in every sense, with Motiv8‘s extended version of He’s on the Phone. Ultimately I’m no fan of Motiv8 – in fact I think his habit in the mid-90s of churning out the same mix again and again for everybody who was anybody was more than a little irritating. But there was a reason why his formula was successful – it was actually pretty good – and I think He’s on the Phone is probably the best of his series of identikit mixes.

We then get PFM‘s frantic drum and bass version of The Sea, followed by a couple of dull mixes of Angel and Sylvie, before Paul van Dyk‘s great version of How We Used to Live. Then finally, as things always should with Saint Etienne, they take a turn for the brilliant with Hybrid‘s remix of the brilliant Boy is Crying. It may be seventeen tracks into the album, but it does feel a little as though everything was leading to this.

Having persevered through two hours of overlong and often dated fare, all the good stuff seems to be clumped up at the end – you get Two Lone Swordsmen‘s brilliant version of Heart Failed (In the Back of a Taxi), and then Mark Brown‘s truly exceptional extended single version of Burnt Out Car. The closing track sees Richard X extending his own Method of Modern Love and making it a little less good than the single version, but it’s still pretty special, and really not a bad way of closing the album.

If you go for the four disc version, disc three is distinctly patchy, while disc four features some incredibly good moments, but you’ll be pretty exhausted by the time you make it there. There’s also a bonus disc’s worth of downloads too, which include a couple of forgotten gems, so it is a good collection all round.

Casino Classics is an odd remaster though, and it is a little patchy in places, so I maybe wouldn’t advise first time Saint Etienne listeners to bother with it. As a collection of remixes from one of the most important pop acts of the last couple of decades though, it’s pretty good.

The version of Casino Classics we’ve just listened to is this one, but if it’s still available and your pocket is feeling a little heavy, you could just go with the four disc version, which boasts twice as much music and some lovely DVD sized packaging. Don’t forget the bonus download disc either!