Saint Etienne

I've Been Trying to Tell You

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I've Been Trying to Tell You Review

by Tim Sendra

From the beginning of their long career, Saint Etienne have excelled at bringing together nostalgia and futurism in one stylish package that has always felt fresh, no matter how many old parts were salvaged in the creation process. Along the way, many of their most memorable moments have come about on the dancefloor, whether a glittering new wave disco or a past-its-prime Northern Soul discotheque. Looking past the shiny surfaces, it was always clear that the trio have just as much skill at crafting heartbreakingly pretty ballads that could be as epic as "Avenue", elegiac as "Teenage Winter", or painful as "Hobart Paving." After a couple of records in the 2010s that were bright and shiny examples of disco-driven pop at its best, the band have shifted gears dramatically to delve exclusively into their sadder, softer side. 2021's I've Been Trying to Tell You is a concept album that looks to extract the optimistic sound of late '90s mainstream pop and twist it into a suite of songs that feel like the half-remembered afterimages of a dream. Built around samples of artists like Tasmin Archer, Lighthouse Family, Lightning Seeds, and Honeyz, to name a few, the band snatch little bits of acoustic guitar, strings, and keyboards, add their own instrumentation, then drape snatches of vocals over the top. The end results aren't songs as much as they are moods, or dub-like versions of songs that never existed. The circular melodies spin around like a record on a turntable, the keyboards drift and swell like ships lost at sea, and Sarah Cracknell sings like she's making up bits of songs to be sung only to herself. It's mesmerizing and peaceful, uplifting and heartbreaking all at once, especially when the revolving sounds resolve into something resembling a chorus, as on "Penlop" when all the elements of the song come together, and the melody breaks through like the sun on a cloud-filled afternoon. "Pond House," too, comes alive when the Natalie Imbruglia vocal sample shifts into a wonky synth bass breakdown, then slides back into a hazy swoon that plays on and on. There are moments like this throughout the album as the band mixes sounds like mod scientists to come up with something magical. While early albums sought a similar sample-based path that often deviated into eddies of calm despair, the band have never dived in as deeply as they do on I've Been Trying to Tell You. Fans of the group more interested in songs might feel short-changed at first, but further listens only intensify the cohesive power and pocket grandeur of the record. It's rare for a band to have a new idea after being together for five years, let alone thirty. That Saint Etienne not only had a brilliant idea but also made it come to life so fully and so beautifully is nothing short of miraculous.

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