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For more than two decades, Saint Etienne has embodied the art of understated pop. Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley's synthesizers and drum machines have been dance-worthy but delicate, full of referential samples. Sarah Cracknell's pitch-perfect voice has been smooth, sophisticated and seemingly devoid of effort. Together, they're synonymous with the word "chic."
Saint Etienne remains enviably stylish on Words and Music by Saint Etienne, but the cool reserve is gone. In its place are unabashed electronic odes to pop's gravitational pull. This is Saint Etienne wide-eyed and writ large.
The band fine-tuned — and, in some cases, AutoTuned — these songs with producers Richard X (M.I.A., Annie) and Nick Coler (formerly of Xenomania, the British production team behind chart-topping hits by Sugababes and Girls Aloud), and there's no mistaking the intent: This record was designed for the dance floor. "Tonight," Words and Music's first single, distills the promise and feeling of Friday night down to a few minutes: "Tonight / when the lights are going down / I will surrender to the sound / and look at all the kids around."
"Kids" is the glaring word in that line. Cracknell is 45, and Wiggs and Stanley are even older, yet Words and Music is Saint Etienne's youngest-sounding album, less about loving music than being absolutely infatuated with it. "I've Got Your Music" is literally about listening to your favorite songs on a nice pair of headphones. "DJ" needs no explanation.
If there's a theme to Words and Music, it's that you're only as old as the music you love — words to live by, for Saint Etienne and everyone else.