Nothing can stop them now

A shame that, 1993’s So Tough excepted, Saint Etienne have never made more than one listenable album — and lord knows I’ve tried several. Smash The System, the only one of the (several) extant compilations  I own, is perfect, perfect, perfect; even without “Pale Movie” and “Who Do You Think You Are,” it makes the strongest case on the trio’s behalf as masters of a very particular kind of urban but gooey would-be pop music that I don’t hear any of their contemporaries matching or even wanting to record. I suppose the Pet Shop Boys come closest, and Sarah Cracknell is as crucial, indivisible, and inexplicable to the band’s impact as Neil Tennant to his act. In “Lose That Girl” and “Heart Failed (In the Back of a Taxi),” she perfects a distance from her material that’s no less affecting for being sung in a voice whose charm depends on the singsong buoyance of an unapologetic member of the bourgeoisie; she’s like a friend relating situations involving mutual acquaintances that she hasn’t experienced herself but has thought through anyway. Maybe that’s why she and her colleagues can’t make perfect albums: their compassion doesn’t extend so far.

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