Saint Etienne: Playing on Prefix

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Playing on Prefix is a feature on KCRW’s Music Blog in which writers from the eclectic music site Prefix hip you to what’s coming out of their computer speakers each week.

By Mike Burr

From adolescence to young adulthood, music is one of the primary cultural currencies for self-definition. Teenagers create a space between themselves and the square, adult world on one end and a safe, boring childhood on the other by listening to music that could be directly offensive, but more often is simply incomprehensible to anyone outside of its zeitgeist.

There’s nothing overtly obscene about Dinosaur Jr. or Nirvana; my father probably thought he got off cheap when other kids in the neighborhood, often hilariously, started getting into N.W.A. and 2 Live Crew.

Music wasn’t simply a tool for managed rebellion; as a young man, it offered me a portal to the opposite sex. Taste in albums was an easy topic that was blessedly free of pitfalls — and if the prospective date thought that The Lemonheads were better than the Pixies, you probably didn’t want to date her anyway.

Hook-ups could be arranged under the guise of “listening to records,” and merely going the right shows could stratospherically elevate the social status of even the most hopeless social pariahs.

Despite music’s pivotal place in the coming of age process, it is often the first to fossilize or fade away in the face of maturity. The primary reason for this is simply tyranny of choice. Having a working knowledge of music takes time that most working adults don’t have. It’s much easier to be hip to film, because the selections are proscribed clearly by time and location, and dates to the movie theater are not subject to the unpredictability and late hours of heading to a club to catch a show. The same goes for television; while it lacks the cachet of a night out, it is the ultimate in low effort cultural adoption. And the comparative paucity of choices with both of these options eliminates the often terrible discovery phase associated with finding new music.

Record store clerks who used to seem like the coolest guys on the planet now definitely don’t want to be talking about the Dirty Projectors to some old square who likes Wilco.

All of these reasons work in concert with the fact that eventually, as with most passions of youth, music fandom begins to seem a little bit silly. High school kids born five years after Cobain died are wearing “Nevermind” T-shirts, and anarchic cheerleaders don’t really jibe with paying a mortgage or changing dirty diapers. Like much of adolescence, music becomes one more thing to shrug about embarrassedly when forced to relive the time period, or a guilty pleasure only to be indulged in the strictest privacy.

Cue Saint Etienne’s Words and Music By Saint Etienne. In addition to being an exquisitely crafted collection of infectious pop songs, the entire album is a thesis on music fandom. The album opens with a spoken word piece, “Over the Border”, where vocalist Sarah Cracknell wistfully recounts her discovery of music, remembering that “the conversation always turned to music,” and even better how she knew that a boyfriend “was in love, because he made her a tape.”

She even wonders if “Marc Bolan would still be so important.” This song alone would be enough to trigger a wave of nostalgia and a few serious conversations on the importance of music in our lives. Saint Etienne does not veer away from this idea over the next dozen tracks.

The narrative expands, encompassing the reverence for DJs that informs the writing and playing of band members Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs. The listening experience folds in upon itself, as Saint Etienne plays music influenced by their experience as music fans but also about this experience.

As the album ends, with the elegiac “I Threw It All Away” and cautiously hopeful “Haunted Jukebox”, Saint Etienne makes a good case for the continued importance of the music of our collective youth. The acuity of the memories that Cracknell, Stanley and Wiggs conjure belie the idea that music, even the lightest of pop, could be something to be shrugged off with the other obsolete trappings of youth.

— Mike Burr