Rock: Saint Etienne almost get into the party spirit

DEPENDING ON which Saint Etienne fan you speak to, Sarah Cracknell, Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley can take the credit/blame for Britpop, Eurodisco, neo-lounge music, the Sixties film-theme revival, the indie-dance crossover, or any combination of the above. And maybe that's why they're not as successful as you'd expect. They're an oddity, neither one thing nor the other, and while bands from Air to the Cardigans have done well for themselves by focusing on one ingredient of the recipe each, Saint Etienne's sophisticated blend of Eighties electropop, kitschy orchestration and grey British lyrics about burnt toast and cold coffee has always been too confused to be wholly satisfying. The music tends to sound as if it's spent too much time hanging around with the glum lyrics. Try as it might to be fluffy and fun, it's too tired and undernourished to get into the party spirit.

Saint Etienne's new album, Good Humor (Creation), is their warmest, brightest and most substantial so far, and at Bristol University on Wednesday they were sounding bigger and better still: the music has been eating its greens and making regular trips to the gym since the last time they toured.

"The Bad Photographer" was pumped up by tough, almost Blur-like guitar chords, "People Get Real" was carried along on rolling waves of keyboard noise, and "He's on the Phone" had developed into a disco epic worthy of Blondie. Saint Etienne have hired a full live band, and they've certainly got their money's worth. The drummer, the guitarist and the Richard Ashcroft lookalike on bass competed to see who could hit their instruments the hardest, and two backing singers shimmied, posed, laughed and bashed tambourines as if this were the most glorious night of their lives. I am convinced they once used to be half of Bucks Fizz, so I expect they were just excited to be back in the pop limelight.

The only downside to having such a sterling bunch of musicians on board is that they throw the deficiencies of the core trio into sharp relief. Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs stooped over two synthesisers each, but they left all the difficult electric piano solos to another keyboard player at the back of the stage. And Sarah Cracknell seemed worried that the backing singers were sniggering at her behind her back. She never looked as if her mind was on what she was doing, and she was too self-conscious to dance for more than two seconds before stopping to fiddle with her hair. Her vocals were semi-detached, too. "I've never felt so good/ I've never felt so strong," she sang on "Nothing Can Stop Us". If that's true, I'd hate to see her when she's feeling peaky.

This lack of engagement could be a miscalculated effort to be icily cool, but as long as she refuses to give herself up to the music, it's difficult for the rest of us to do the same. At the end, she thanked the audience for their enthusiasm. "Cheered me up a treat, you have," she said. Yes, well, but isn't it her job to cheer us up?

The Garage in north London is so tiny, it should be renamed the Potting Shed. But on Monday night there was plenty of room for everyone: it looks as if Superstar's name will continue to be ironic for the near future. Why this might be is not exactly a mystery. On "Superstar" (covered on Rod Stewart's forthcoming album, no less), Joe McAlinden sings, "Don't want to put on a show," and, believe me, it's a sentiment that comes from the heart. Even writing a set list seems to be too much of a stretch. The band were often unsure which song they were doing next, and their random approach to the running order meant that we got a wearying number of songs, one after another, of the same pace (slow to middling) and mood (fraught to nervous breakdown).

It's not just that you don't get any more from seeing Superstar in concert than you do from putting on their new album, Palm Tree (Camp Fabulous): it's that you get less. At home, you can flick through a magazine while the record's on; at a gig you have to look at four men as unglamorous and unstylish as an ancient by-law require Glaswegian bands to be. It's a shame, because McAlinden's tender, lavish songs fulfil the promise of the band's name and more. Big of melody and bigger of heart, and well-served by McAlinden's trembling falsetto, these anthemic tearjerkers come half-way between Radiohead and Bernard Butler. In a fairer world, the Garage would have been half-empty just because so many Superstar fans were at home listening to the album.

Three nights later, and the Garage was so crowded and so meltingly hot that everyone inside was ready to collapse - not that that's an unusual state of affairs for Royal Trux. The band and their music are always on the verge of crumpling into a heap. Like Boss Hog and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Royal Trux crawled from the wreckage of fabled New York racket-makers, Pussy Galore, so it will come as no surprise that their bewilderingly highly acclaimed new album, Accelerator (Domino) is an unruly, unholy blast of junk rock, recorded on a Sony Walkman under a blanket in a cupboard. Onstage, they prefer to strip away this glossy production and get back to basics. Take "Juicy Juicy Juice", for example: a violent drum-beat, a trashy guitar riff, and Jennifer Herrema - her arms mummified with insulation tape, a stetson pulled down to her chin, and a silver belt-buckle you could carry a round of drinks on - squawking "Juicy, Juicy, Juice!" Change the title, and, therefore, most of the lyrics, and you've got all of their other songs.

Yes, you're right. Royal Trux would be quite pathetic, except that they write surprisingly catchy rock'n'roll tunes which it's tempting to describe as classics. The band could be filling venues 10 times the size of the Garage if they cleaned up their sound (and themselves), and you have to admire them for refusing to do so. I think.

Royal Trux: Brighton Cybar (01273 384280), tonight.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher

    Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher A specialist primary school i...

    Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

    £15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

    Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

    Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

    Day In a Page

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links