Saint Etienne

Sound of Water (Sub Pop Records)

The personality of a postmodern pop group is not so much split as it is severed. There are tons of musical styles from which to pick and choose, so all that a clever and imaginative musician needs to do is to figure out how to piece them all together with a little bit of panache. And that's certainly one thing that Saint Etienne does very well. After all, how many groups can so easily invoke Burt Bacharach, the Happy Mondays, Stereolab, and Audrey Hepburn all on the same album without sounding like an obvious pastiche? Yet at Sound of Water's worst, the band tends to slide into a deadly, Prozac-Muzak stupor that takes it forever to snap out of. For better or worse, Saint Etienne eerily and uncritically duplicates even the least interesting portions of the music they love the most, which makes this album something of a mixed blessing.

Punctuated at the beginning, middle, and end by three languid electronic instrumentals, Sound of Water fancies itself a two-act melodrama over which long-time Saint Etienne singer Sarah Cracknell carefully but casually enunciates the stylishly elliptic nature of the group's lyrics. A variety of 20th-century melodic traditions are evoked throughout, with the results sounding either smart (the classy Latin soul of "Boy Is Crying") or sappy (the lachrymose "Late Morning"). After all, a group that fondly evokes the Caucasian android pop of the Carpenters on "Downey, CA" could be more Captain and Tennille than they are Brian Wilson. Still, there's also a glimpse of the future in the eyes of main composers Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley, and they let the listener in on it with the epic "How We Used to Live." Here the band members reveal themselves as much students of trance/ dance guru Paul Van Dyk -- who cemented the connection with the group on the collaboration "Tell Me Why (The Riddle)," not included on this album -- as they are of Paul McCartney.

And it's moments like these when Saint Etienne is bursting with exuberance and love for music past and present that reveals the band at its best. For the most part, Sound of Water finds Saint Etienne merely gliding over the vision that saw it through the '90s rather than taking control of it. Even though it's pieced together out of many unique parts, Saint Etienne accomplishes nothing once the music gets boring.

 
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