St Etienne's London Soundtrack Is Good But Needs Movie
Londonist Rating: ★★★☆☆
"It's a miracle that London works at all. The whole thing is implausible."
That's a quote from an imminent new soundtrack release, and one we fully endorse. The idea of London as a crazy place that shouldn't be able to function is one theme of the brilliant film How We Used To Live (2013), in which director Paul Kelly carefully curates BFI archive footage of London from the post-war reconstruction period to the end of the 1970s, with the help of Bob Stanley of London indie pop group Saint Etienne. It followed three previous collaborations between Kelly and the band, brought together by the BFI as A London Trilogy.
The band's Pete Wiggs, composed the soundtrack to the film, which works superbly alongside the film (itself due for DVD release in the spring) but perhaps less superbly as a standalone record.
Soundtracks are an oddity in music in that they're very much meant to be heard in conjunction with a film, and this is no exception. Though the music cannot be described as incidental, it's only when you've seen How We Used To Live that these 22 tracks make sense as a collection. The record is an intriguing mixture of pleasurable tunes and more experimental tracks, but you really need to have seen the film for it to have the biggest impact.
A good example is the double-bass and flute-driven track We've Got The Moves. A fine piece of music in its own right (you can hear it yourself below), but it's when combined with archive footage of fashionable Londoners jiving in clubs and pubs across the city that the music really comes alive.
At the halfway point is Ready or Not, by Saint Etienne vocalist Sarah Cracknell. As the album's centrepiece and the point at which the soundtrack is allowed to stand as a record in its own right, it arguably makes the album worth buying for this track alone. However, as sharp-eared Etienne fans will know, it's from Cracknell's 1997 debut solo album Lipslide, so if it's just that track you're after you may as well buy that instead.
If this review sounds like a lukewarm reception for the soundtrack, it's only because the film is such compulsive viewing. The direction and selection of the footage works perfectly alongside Wiggs's music, while audio clips from the archive are brilliantly backed-up by narration from actor Ian McShane. The narration is often enjoyably droll: "Dial 1 if you're outside London. When would I ever be outside London?" and in a section about the vivid colours of the 1960s which suddenly hit the city: "I gave a song to the Rolling Stones. They gave it back."
You can watch a trailer for the film below, for a taste of both movie and soundtrack.
The same piano riff crops up repeatedly on the album and eventually forms the basis of an almost Doctor Who-flavoured closer, The Paths of Others. "There's life everywhere, and the tracks we make are shared and crossed by the paths of others, who know this world better than we do." A suitably mysterious quote to end a good record that suffers only by its separation from the superb film it soundtracks.
Saint Etienne Presents: How We Used To Live is released on 9 December, when it'll be available from the Saint Etienne store. A physical release of the movie will follow in the spring.
Last Updated 04 December 2014