Saint Etienne

So Tough


Oct 19, 2009 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Originally released in 1993, Saint Etienne’s sophomore album So Tough features refined electo-pop accented with a splash of kitsch. 16 years later, So Tough’s re-mastered reissue—complete with a bonus disc of unreleased and overlooked B-sides—proves that wine isn’t the only thing that ages well. Still fresh and exciting, Saint Etienne’s blend of Serge Gainsborg’s playful posturing, gritless Deborah Harry swagger, and classic acid house beats has remarkable staying power. Striking a winning balance of 1960s pop nuance and modern subtle sampling, their aesthetic brings them closer to a laid-back Stereolab than other likeable, but easily forgotten early '90s contemporaries.

Paring ethereal musicality with banal observations about life in everyday London (album opener “Mario’s Café” features a man resignedly listing off his breakfast of  “cigarette, cup of tea, a bun”), So Tough is easy to identify with while still managing to transcend the ordinary. With songs sandwiched between spoken-word interludes, the album has an air of quiet narrative intensity—not unlike Woody Allen’s output-circa Interiors. From the beautifully intense “Hobart Paving” (a Van Dyke Parks arranged version of the song closes out the bonus disc), to the darkly mysterious “Junk the Morgue,” to the Beach Boys pop of “You’re in a Bad Way,” So Tough provides a moment of introspection for almost every mood—without once compromising Saint Etienne’s core sound.

The bonus material, however, diverges from the Saint Etienne’s signature electro-pop with mixed results. While an occasional clunker sneaks though (“I’m too Sexy” and the previously unreleased Bob Dylan cover “Rainy Day Women” feel like the carnal appeal of a lesser band) the disc manages to effectively display their range. “California Snow Story” and Jigsaw cover “Who Do You Think You Are” could easily stand up to anything in their catalogue. Instrumentals such as “Duke Duvet” and “Johnny in the Echo Café” expand So Tough’s sound, recreating their dreamy atmospherics with instruments rather than samples. Meanwhile, vocalist Sarah Cracknell’s cool confidence in “Stranger in Paradise” elevates the track to what feels like a missing electro-indie James Bond theme.

Today, Saint Etienne's continuing influence is evident. Would Little Boots and Annie have found a different band’s recipe to dilute in their attempts to produce bubble gum delights with a tough girl intensity? Could Lykkie Li or Sally Shapiro have found an audience without Cracknell’s sweet but wispy vocals clearing their way? It would have been, well…so tough. (


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February 11th 2010

A nice description but I have never heard of the album. The picture sticks in my mind. I don’t know why but that girl reminds me of a younger verison of Twigg

video izle
July 12th 2010

Meanwhile, singer Sarah Cracknell’s icy confidence in “Stranger in Paradise” elevates the track to what feels like a missing electro-indie James Bond theme.