Manchester University

Do [B]Saint Etienne[/B] mean it (man)? Who cares. More pressing, surely, is how [B]Saint Etienne[/B] have regularly underestimated pop...

Do Saint Etienne mean it (man)? Who cares. More pressing, surely, is how Saint Etienne have regularly underestimated pop, downgraded it to a few cheap plastic fittings and some airy ba-ba-bas, when everyone knows that the best pop (from Bacharach to ‘Back For Good’) is immediate, but durable, obvious, but, somehow, universally knowing. Quality, in short.

Which brings us to tonight. And Saint Etienne 2000, a band, it seems, who have largely resolved that conundrum. There are still some bits of fluff clinging to their hem; ‘Erica America’, for instance, is all show-tune glitter and no chorus, while, ironically, ‘Lose That Girl’ has a great twist in the chorus, but is bland, nodding pop otherwise.

On the whole, however, Saint Etienne have learnt to control their problem, fly-away songs, and tonight the many-handed band are meaty and graceful. ‘Filthy’ is fluid dub-disco, a perfect balance of icy reserve and redoubtable funk, a soft-focus ‘Nothing Can Stop Us’ is a grand sigh, as ever. ‘Sylvie’ is dizzy, kinetic synth-pop, with a base note of English stiffness, although ‘Heart Failed (In The Back Of A Taxi)’ – perfectly-poised autobahn pop, a hug in a freezing European square – is more the way of things, on Planet Etienne, these days.

Perhaps, finally, they’ve realised that they’re too old and clever to write ‘Ooh Aah… Just A Little Bit’, but, gradually, they’ve become what we always wanted them to be: slightly off-kilter pop scientists, who’ve gone mad in Munich and moped about in Maidstone. And vice-versa. Basically, the weirder they get (these things being relative, of course) the better they are. Their wires showing, their avant-garde up, ‘Urban Clearway’ and ‘Like A Motorway’ (Moroder-does-country’n’western!?) are both snazzily odd. On a different tack entirely, ‘Boy Is Crying’ is a taut, pouting Latin scuffle, while ‘Don’t Back Down’ manages to reconcile proto-jungle squeakings (from ’91) with, erm, the swish jazz-lite of Swing Out Sister. ‘How We Used To Live’, a barmy triptych, sources all of the above and more, peaking with that heart-racing, wistful mid-section, a glorious amalgam of PSB, Dusty Springfield and Joe Smooth that could only be Saint Etienne.

You may not have given them a thought since ‘So Tough’, but Saint Etienne sound fresh and exotic again. Forget how much Saint Etienne feel these songs, it’s how they make [I]you[/I] feel. And tonight, we feel slightly bemused, and very giddy.