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Pop's never-never band return to the source

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First love: Saint Etienne play their debut album in its entirety tonight in Cork's Savoy

First love: Saint Etienne play their debut album in its entirety tonight in Cork's Savoy

First love: Saint Etienne play their debut album in its entirety tonight in Cork's Savoy

Purveyors of what one critic called "never-never pop", Saint Etienne should have been one of the biggest pop groups of the 1990s. Simon Reynolds's term encapsulates both the band's quest for the magical, timeless perfect pop sound as well as the impossibility of it flourishing in the real world.

And so it proved: it never really happened for them on a commercial level but they remain beloved by music critics, bedsitters and club-hoppers alike.

Part of the appeal of the London trio was the way in which they knitted together wildly different elements that theoretically should never have been on speaking terms with each other: Dusty Springfield; 1960s girl-groups; mid-1980s indie pop; Neil Young; Italian house music; German electronica ... Listening to a Saint Etienne album was like discovering a treasure trove of pop music's past -- as well as getting a glimpse of its future. You could argue that they prepared the ground for the likes of today's electro-popettes Ladyhawke, La Roux and Little Boots.

Their new single, a bouncy dancefloor anthem called Method Of Modern Love, was written and produced by Richard X and sounds like something that Kylie Minogue would have had a worldwide hit with. "I'll bet he wishes he'd given it to Kylie," laughs Saint Etienne singer Sarah Cracknell, fatalistically. You sense she's only half-joking.

Saint Etienne were formed in London by keyboard boffins Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs and they recruited Cracknell during their recording of their debut album Foxbase Alpha in 1991.

The album spawned a dancefloor hit in the guise of their ethereal disco cover of Neil Young's Only Love Can Break Your Heart (which featured one Moira Lambert on vocals) as well as one of their most popular songs Nothing Can Stop Us Now, which announced Cracknell to the world.

Unlike the glass-shattering caterwauling so prevalent among so many r'n'b female vocalists today -- just one of Simon Cowell's many crimes against music -- Cracknell was always noted for her demure, restrained singing style. Instead of going walkabout along the scales, or bellowing in an Aretha-style frenzy, Cracknell was the epitome of cool, calm and collected.

But despite her relatively dispassionate delivery, she became something of an indie pin-up for anyone who came of age in 1990s.

Now with seven studio albums in the drawer, the band are re-releasing their back catalogue in new deluxe re-mastered formats with bonus discs featuring demos, out-takes and unreleased tracks and new sleeve notes. The first to see the light of day is their aforementioned debut, which Saint Etienne will be performing in its entirety tonight in Cork's Savoy, along with a smattering of their greatest hits -- the band released a 'best of' collection, London Conversations, before Christmas.

So how does Cracknell feel about the band's virgin studio voyage 18 years on? "I think it sounds quite fresh," she answers. "It was a melting pot of ideas, there was a sense of optimism. You don't really sit at home listening to your own albums. When you do re-visit them, they often sound better with a little bit of hindsight."

Cracknell has been to concerts where artists have performed whole albums from start to finish, so she's at ease with the concept.

"You all feel like you're in this big gang. You all know this record. If you love it that much, I think it works really well. I like familiarity. It's like when you go and see a band and everyone goes nuts when the singles come on. If you know it all, you get really excited."

As the title of last year's compilation suggests, their native city has always been a big source of inspiration for the band.

In 2002, they recorded the soundtrack to a well-received arthouse documentary on the city called Finisterre, while in 2007 they were involved in making their own film documenting the history of London's Royal Festival Hall, one of the cultural landmarks of the city's South Bank.

"London was a magnetic draw for all three of us," says Cracknell. "The boys were in Croydon which is basically south London. I was in Windsor, which isn't far either. In your early teens you get drawn to the bright lights ... and the clothes and the music and the culture. So I moved there when I was 17. I did all my growing up there. We had great fun there -- as well as a great belief in London as a focal point for fashion and music."

Saint Etienne will also be playing festival dates across Europe this summer. Sarah remembers well the first time she played the legendary Glastonbury blow-out -- for all the wrong reasons.

"We turned up really late. We got there 20 minutes to spare before we were due on stage. This was the first year the BBC televised Glastonbury and we were the first band that appeared on the broadcast. It was just as well I didn't get to see the build-up to our set and see how many people were in the audience or I would have got really nervous."

And of course the notoriously inclement weather that seems to follow Glasto around only made things worse ... "It was like being in a war zone," says Cracknell. "I remember when we were leaving the site. The mud was so bad that people were pounding on the doors of our coach to try and get off site. They were like muddy swamp monsters."

Just as well their Cork gig in The Savoy, Patrick Street, tonight is indoors then.

London Conversations: the Best of Saint Etienne and the re-issued Foxbase Alpha are out now

nkelly@independent.ie