Saint Etienne, ICA, London

ICA, London

Many bands have used their songs to glamorise the surroundings that spawned them. The Beach Boys penned shiny odes to an idealised California, while American psychedelic bands in the late 1960s frequently suggested that San Francisco was essentially utopia with added LSD. But few artists have chosen such a difficult subject as Saint Etienne. The trio - Bob Stanley, Pete Wiggs and singer Sarah Cracknell - have spent a decade writing wispy, romantic odes to the shabby streets of north London. To their credit, their musical smoke-and-mirrors routine has largely worked: the gulf between their charming and beautiful song Archway People and the actual experience of visiting Archway is so immense as to defy belief.

At the ICA, Saint Etienne are debuting songs from their forthcoming album, Finisterre. And the mood is completely different. As the audience enter, they are handed a piece of card featuring a picture of a half-demolished tower block. The songs are accompanied by a series of bleak films: graffiti, lashing rain, grim-faced teenagers staring unblinkingly. It is London, but devoid of Saint Etienne's usual sprinkling of glitz.

What has inspired this change is open to question, but it is quite a departure. Saint Etienne's forte is self-consciously fluffy dance-pop: Nothing Can Stop Us is the perfect example, rampaging along joyously on an old Dusty Springfield sample, delirious and knowing in equal measure. But there is something incongruous about hearing that kind of music soundtracking gritty urban realism, as if Mike Leigh had asked Pete Waterman to score his latest film.

The show works best when the music follows the images: the chirpy current single Action sounds odd, but Amateur's electronic pounding and forlorn lyrics - "Janine, just 19, joined a pyramid scheme" - fit exactly, as do the scraping synthesised tones of New Thing. The idea of a downbeat, downcast Saint Etienne seems faintly oxymoronic, but tonight the darkest moments are the ones that truly sparkle.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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