by Jason Fuller
England’s St. Etienne has spent the last eight years carefully crafting pristine pop music without drawing much attention to itself outside of the U.K. Formed back in 1991, the band members set out to copy the American guitar pop sound they loved — without the guitars. It is a formula that has served them well. Even as the group experimented with a number of the passing influences, from folk to jazz to electronica, throughout the ’90s, St. Etienne has remained essentially a timeless, I’ll say it again, pop institution.
Following up the release of last year’s Good Humour, the group’s fifth album and first for American indie Sub Pop, St. Etienne checked that album’s jazz influences and returned to electronica for the Places to Visit EP. Places is full of lush musical landscapes and dreamy, future-forward instrumentation. Singer Sarah Cracknell is well fit to play the vocal chanteuse to Bob Stanley and Pete Wigg’s crystalline arrangements. The album has a retro-futurist feel not unlike other modern international pop outfits such as Pizzicato Five and the Cardigans — combining the best of ’60s orchestrated pop music à la Burt Bacharach with electronica for a best-of-both-worlds result.
Both the opening track, "Ivyhouse," and closing track, "Half Timbered," border on ambient territory, lending the album an otherworldly feel. The High Llamas, Sean O’Hagan and the ubiquitous Jim O’Rourke lend a hand on the bubbling "52 Pilot," a track that can only fuel comparisons to the space-age ditties of O’Hagan’s former band Stereolab. The sultry "We’re in the City" was surely written with the Eurodance club scene in mind. The breathy, lovelorn "Sadie’s Anniversary" — a Cracknell standard — fills the quiet and introspective song quota. Places to Visit is a fully measured equal dose of what St. Etienne has come to offer. It’s a sure sign that St. Etienne is set to continue the pop tradition well into the new century.