Join Our Cell
“I feel a nostalgia for an age yet to come,” a clipped BBC voice intones between tracks on Saint Etienne‘s new Finisterre. On Soft Cell‘s comeback single, “Monoculture,” Marc Almond offers a blunter take on pop chronology, beating naysayers to the punchline while he’s at it: “The world’s gone insane/Everything that’s old is new again.” The least-dated synth duo of the early ’80s and the most enduring synth trio of the ’90s played back-to-back nights November 24 and 25—a Britpop happening that constituted its own sort of electroclash (gutter romanticism vs. urban utopianism) and provided a split-screen tutorial in diva technique (not for nothing did Stephin Merritt recruit both histrionic chansonnier Almond and the Saint’s kindly ice princess Sarah Cracknell to guest-star on the last 6ths LP).
At the Roxy, a bleach-blond, black-clad Almond, still trim at 45—”old whore” was his preferred description—looked more than ever like the model for Alan Cumming’s emcee in Cabaret. Facing an initially diffident crowd, he muscled on with the entitled confidence of a homecoming queen: Closer to the L.E.S. proto-electro-trash of Suicide than to any of their English synth-fop peers, Almond and keyboardist Dave Ball recorded 1981’s Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret in between Danceteria nights—they like to call it the first Ecstasy album. As chatty as you’d expect from his spill-all memoir, Tainted Life, Almond asked after the state of post-Rudy clubland (“What’s the other guy like?”), offered to rename the freaked comedown mantra “Bedsitter” “Studio Apartment,” and dedicated a panting, extravagantly mimed version of stripper burlesque “Baby Doll” to “the ghosts of New York past.”
The new Cruelty Without Beauty matches requisite heavy basslines with the heavier throb of midlife regret, but as a performer, Almond still musters the excitement of a suburban kid at his first gay disco. Those two stabbing, laggardly notes—the cattle-prod imprint of the Cell’s one megahit—were greeted with mock horror (“It’s that song again!”), but the set’s dutiful climax took on a rehabilitative purpose, rekindling a love tainted by years of karaoke nightmares and Levi’s ads. While the first encore rescued bitchy kiss-off tantrum “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” from the David Gray elevator to hell, the second, marking the end of the evening’s PG-13 entertainment, combined the demon-seed hiss of “Martin” with the cartoon s&m bounce of “Sex Dwarf,” setting up Mr. Self-Destruct’s leather-fist parting shot: “Keep the sleaze in New York!”
The city’s disco dollies had voluntarily abandoned their life of vice by the time genteel jet-setters Saint Etienne touched down at Irving Plaza. Where Almond has never seen the shame in begging for love, Cracknell, whose affect is as coolly minimal as an Eames chair, knows that she need merely angle her head to elicit an ovation. Divested of wired backing singers, the Saints were assured enough to premiere the new material in an uninterrupted eight-song block. It helps that Finisterre (literally, “the end of the earth”) doesn’t rock any boats. If Good Humor grooved on Ikea prefab and The Sound of Water luxuriated in Krautrock amniotics, this sixth album relocates the happy balance between hit-factory gloss and sonic sculpting that carried them through Tiger Bay.
Taking breathers on the remorseful Bacharachish stroll “Stop and Think It Over” and the airy fey-pride taunt “Soft Like Me” (with South London’s Wildflower contributing no-nonsense lite rap), the Saints tweaked the rest of the set for maximum club impact—ripping the bottoms out of the songs, going mad with the glitter shaker. New single “Action” quotes Christina Aguilera, Johnny Marr, and the last album’s “How We Used to Live,” then polishes the crazy mosaic to a hot Kylie sheen. Saint Etienne’s songs have always existed in a dreamy, timeless London (their live version of “Hand in Glove” covers the Rita Tushingham sleeve as much as the song). At Irving, they back-projected a film in progress, and the visual aid (which owed much to eccentric London psychogeographers Iain Sinclair and Patrick Keiller) was concrete in more ways than one. Who knew these pop aesthetes had a taste for council-estate brutalism? It all makes sense. Finisterre: a soft bulletin from land’s end. —Dennis Lim
We Hear You Rockin’ . . .
At Dave Edmunds‘s rip-roaring set at Bottom Line last Friday, a fan responded to his call for requests with “play anything you want.” And that’s just what Edmunds did. After a well-received opening set by singer-songwriter Marshall Crenshaw that included nods to Buddy Holly and the Beatles, as well as tunes like “Cynical Girl,” “Someday Someway,” and “Something’s Gonna Happen,” the packed crowd was ready to rock.
The lanky Welshman hit the stage for his third appearance here in less than 10 months, armed with just an acoustic guitar, and gleefully led the crowd through an hour and a half of his greatest hits, like “Girls Talk,” “Crawling From the Wreckage,” “Queen of Hearts,” and “Singing the Blues.” He played an instrumental version of the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna” and a stirring heartfelt cover of “Here Comes the Sun,” with vocal inflections so unique it sounded like he was making it up on the spot. Selections from his Nick Lowe-Rockpile Days included “I Knew the Bride” and “Here Comes the Weekend,” pop songs laced with biting humor.
Edmunds’s technique, finger-picking alternating with power chords, makes it very easy to forget he’s onstage alone. His classic American rock married to great British pop continues to remind us of the power of the primitive twang—and that the angels still wanna wear Carl Perkins’s “Blue Suede Shoes.” —Andrew Aber