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
Voices
voices
News
general electionThis quiz matches undecided voters with the best party for them
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen starred in the big screen adaptation of Austen's novel in 2005
tvStar says studios are forcing actors to get buff for period roles
News
Prince William and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge show their newly-born daughter, their second child, to the media outside the Lindo Wing at St Mary's Hospital in central London, on 2 May 2015.
news
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
  • Get to the point
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

    Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

    £22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

    Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

    £22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

    Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

    £40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

    Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

    £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

    Day In a Page

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before