Saint Etienne

Sound of Water (Sub Pop Records)

Sep 6, 2000 at 4:00 am
A small subset of singles in pop history defy the spirit of their designation and choose to become sequences instead, chained melodies that stretch along paths of genre exploration. Whereas these medleys are grandiose and almost campy in their ambition, they can also be thrilling, because they pack the element of surprise, such as when "Bohemian Rhapsody" moves from a maze of choirlike voices to Brian May's crushing power chords. The song's a rush (the first few times, anyway), because a trapdoor seems to collapse beneath the listener's feet.

Saint Etienne recognizes the power of these shifts on its fifth album, Sound of Water. The album's first single, "How We Used to Live," is a particularly svelte and bouncy trilogy, each tightly arranged chunk of electro-pop orbiting the lyrical motif of "sail away." In its first incarnation, it's French lounge music with a tropical breeze, but it soon evolves into a catchy, club-friendly second chapter with sparkling synths and a quick beat that wouldn't feel out of place among past singles like "He's On the Phone." By the time the song is over, vocalist Sarah Cracknell is covering both the melody and the harmony of a two-part R&B girl-group number. The joy is not in these shifts themselves but in how natural they feel, each genre blooming into its successor, the first piano note coming just as the last sequenced beat finishes.

Though Sainte Etienne has been accused unfairly of churning out spicy but disposable dance and Swedish-flavored pop, "How We Used to Live" makes it impossible at last to overlook the group's tendencies toward smart arrangements and Bacharachesque melodies. Sound of Water combines these elements with a hint of ambient techno, thanks to German synth duo To Rococo Rot. Yet the results are never less than charming and organic -- less self-conscious than Stereolab, more colorful than Portishead. "Don't Back Down" punctuates its plaintive chorus with a string section, and "Sycamore" uses intertwining keyboards and a birdlike flute to dreamy effect in its tranquil atmosphere.

For the most part, Sound of Water reverses the giddy sugar rush of 1998's Good Humour, with only two tracks providing any sort of dance-floor fodder. Even though Moogs and other spacey synths abound, the most pronounced keyboard on this record is a simple piano. It complements the ticking, minimalist beat of the instrumental "Aspects of Lambert" and even pounds out a swaggering new-wave vamp on the girl-glam "Boy Is Crying." It almost replaces Cracknell's genial mod soprano as the record's central instrument. But without the record resting on her, she sounds more at ease than she has in years, her gently alluring voice like a soft focus light on the composition shimmering around her.