Late To The Party: Saint Etienne
As I was browsing through the racks at my local record store (local=35 miles away) I happened upon a very inexpensive deluxe edition of Saint Etienne’s Foxbase Alpha. I have heard a few of their hits, and liked their club cover of Neil Young’s Only Love Will Break Your Heart, but my exposure to this band had always been their remixes of other bands work, specifically The Boo Radleys (their version of Rodney King is, in my opinion, superior to the original—no small statement from me). And that exposure was minimal. But Foxbase Alpha, and the follow up So Tough, and the follow up to that, Tiger Bay, constantly show up in “best of_____” polls so I thought I’d take a swing. As you can see by the photo it’s in beautiful shape, and I have to think that the kid who priced it ($3.99) must have been stoned because regular used editions in the same rack are going for $6.99, but whatever, my gain.
The liner notes, unlike a lot of these Deluxe Editions, are generous and informative. For instance, did you know that Foxbase Alpha was loosely based on OMD’s much maligned but recently rehabilitated experimental 80’s album Dazzle Ships? I didn’t, but it becomes apparent with the first “song”, an old French broadcast snippet, which seamlessly blends into Only Love. The record is peppered with little lost and forgotten sound bites, BBC archive audio and the like, and it’s brilliant the way it’s utilized. If used too much it can sound gimmicky, but thankfully here it adds to the overall flow and enjoyment of the album.
If you forced me at gunpoint to describe the overall sound of the album I’d have to say it’s a cross between Stereolab and the Happy Mondays. One of the songs from this album, as a weird fact, was named in honor of that band: Carnt Sleep. See how detailed liner notes can help in the appreciation of a good album? The songs themselves are 100% uniformly terrific, with Carnt Sleep, Girl VII, Spring and Nothing C an Stop Us leading the pack for me so far.
The second disk, ah the second disk…weird, but I like this one even more! The thing about the late ‘80’s/early ‘90’s that I absolutely adored and miss terribly was the amazing quality of B-Sides! Take Blur, The Boo Radleys, even Oasis, and many times these so-called ‘left-overs’ left their A-Side cousins in the dust. It’s dancier and weirder than the first disk, and since I wasn’t there when it came out I’ll just imagine it was put out as a double and leave it at that.
Foxbase Alpha was released in 1991, so I can see how I’d overlook it. That year was packed to the gills with awesome album after awesome album, and this was up against Screamadelica for the inaugural Mercury Prize. I think we all know who won that.
I’ve heard people bemoan the fact they ‘found’ an album too late and cry over the fact they “could have been enjoying it all these years” and other such nonsense, but to me finding a brilliant album like this late in the game only goes to solidify my belief that no matter how hard or how long we look and listen there’s always some gem lurking beneath a rock somewhere, waiting for you to find it.