Archive for the ‘Saint Etienne’ Category
We’ve been on a budget—the real kind, sketched out on a spreadsheet, with predetermined amounts for groceries, household goods, gas and the like that we can’t go over. We’ve been doing it for the past month and it works fantastically. We each have a set figure budgeted for books and music combined, and of course I run through my share pretty quickly. But that’s okay. I buy my allotment of media right away, and then spend the rest of the month planning what to buy when the coffers are refilled—making lists, adding and subtracting, and placing things in and taking them out of various digital shopping carts.
Last night, though, only three days before the month’s allotment will be refreshed, all of my will power wasn’t sufficient to stop me from borrowing against future income to buy the new Dolly Mixture box set, released yesterday. Dolly Mixture was a pretty obscure British band that was around between 1978 and 1984. (The trio was named after some kind of English old-lady candy.) They sang backing vocals on “Happy Talk,” a 1982 single by Captain Sensible that was later sampled by Dizzee Rascal for his 2004 song “Dream”—that might mean more to you than it does to me, as I haven’t heard either one. Dolly Mixture’s own songs were speedy and ebullient, modeled on the girl group bands of the ’60s but new wavier. A year before they broke up, they self-released their single long-player, an exhilarating double album of low-fi recordings called The Demonstration Tapes. I have a download of a mid-’90s reissue of the album, which is pretty much all we’ve had of their work to listen to in the CD era.
The new box set, Everything and More, includes a remastered version of The Demonstration Tapes, plus all of the band’s rare singles and EPs, unreleased tracks, and a booklet. The thing is, it’s a limited edition of I don’t know how many (or how few, I should say) copies. I know it’s doubtful that there are thousands of Dolly Mixture fans just waiting to snatch up all of the copies of a 20-quid box of the band’s recorded output the day it goes on sale, but I didn’t want to take any chances, and now one is winging its way across the Atlantic to me as I write this.
Debsey Wykes, the lovely-voiced singer of Dolly Mixture, went on to become a part-time member of Saint Etienne, which is how I heard of her early band in the first place.
I’m devoting all of this week to the year 1991, a watershed in pop music history—the year punk broke. Nirvana’s Nevermind was released that fall, and grunge became the reigning musical idiom for a while. But a rising tide lifts all boats, and there followed over the next half-decade a great efflorescence of American indie music. Every week, it seemed, I was discovering exciting new bands—Unrest, the Spinanes, the Palace Brothers—and reading about scenes in Portland, D.C., Chicago. I was so intoxicated by this new cultural moment that for a long while afterward I looked back at the chapter of my musical life that came right before and dismissed it. What was I listening to in 1989, 1990, 1991? Nothing very interesting, it seemed. The Soup Dragons.
In hindsight, though, that murky antechamber has turned out to be my favorite period of my musical biography. During those years I bought a handful of albums by quieter bands and musicians, mostly British, and their songs had lots of wit and charm and melody. Saint Etienne’s Foxbase Alpha came out the same month as Nevermind, and it evoked a much different world—sunny, optimistic, windows-open. I wanted my life to be the way life is in this video: meeting friends in cafes, walking through flowery parks, being part of a busy city. It’s only now that I can see that my real life wasn’t all that different. In 1991, I biked around Boston, read a lot of books, ate toast and grapes.
I bought Foxbase Alpha at Tower Records on Newbury Street and then brought it to the apartment of a friend who lived nearby. He was watching the NCAA playoffs, and during a commercial break, I played him a few songs, convinced that he too would find them irresistible. He nodded politely. “I think you’ll listen to this a few times and then get really sick of it,” he said. I left, feeling deflated. But the album proved him wrong. Over the past nineteen years, I’ve probably listened to Foxbase Alpha a few hundred times, and I’ve never stopped loving it. Because something’s lighter than air doesn’t mean it’s not lasting.