Album Review: Saint Etienne – Home Counties

By on Thursday, 1st June 2017 at 12:00 pm
 

Saint Etienne Home Counties album coverI don’t like concept albums. I find them pretentious, that as listeners, we’re supposed to sit through an entire record focused on one topic. I also imagine their recording process to be creatively stifling, forcing a band going into the studio to be bound by very specific constraints to achieve their ideal intended product. However, following the success of 2005’s ‘Tales of Turnpike House’ chronicling the tenants of a block of flats in EC1 London, it seems inevitable that Saint Etienne would one day turn their artistic gaze to the leafy suburbs of the city’s commuter belt for further inspiration. Enter their ninth album ‘Home Counties’, described in the press release as follows: “The love/hate relationship people have with ‘home’ is particularly acute in the Home Counties. Yet Saint Etienne understand that, if you squint, it could be almost utopian… small town groups [are] looking to the capital but audibly inspired by municipal housing, box hedges and ring roads.”

As should be rightly expected from a legendary dance pop band nearing 3 decades in the business, ‘Home Counties’ hits the right notes with several tunes guaranteed to get people on the dance floor. Interestingly, they’ve chosen to mix things up with sounds and styles of eras gone by. Introduced with hi-hat hits aplenty and bolstered by bright brass notes, dusky disco number ‘Dive’ is sure to pique ears with its Studio 54 sensibility. The harpischord-led ‘Take It All In’ pulls us back into the Sixties, encouraging us to stop and smell the roses, while you imagine yourself throwing shapes on a shag carpet to the throwback drumbeats and guitars reminiscent of a Petula Clark hit. We stay in the same decade for nostalgic ‘Underneath the Apple Tree’, a Motown-esque foot stomper. In stark contrast, ‘Heather’, the LP’s lead single, is Saint Etienne’s stab at today’s brand of pop music, with presumably the intention of grabbing the attention of younger ears that might have otherwise never heard of the group. The minor key and syncopated rhythm fitting in perfectly with its ghostly subject: “Heather was once a girl questioned her life / she comes and she goes like the warmth in the daylight”.

‘Something New’ shows you what Saint Etienne do better than any other dance-orientated band: transport you to a specific time and place, when we were all doe-eyed youngsters and all we could think of was having a good night out (see ‘When I Was Seventeen’). In the wake of the Manchester Arena terror attack last week, it’s all the more poignant, Sarah Cracknell’s effortlessly silky smooth vocals bringing a simultaneous sense of innocence and security. Saint Etienne were never the kind of band to hit you on the head with big beats to tap into your brain. No, they’re far more sneaky. On album standout ‘Out of My Mind’, Cracknell’s sweet voice raises all the questions we have for someone we used to love, the ones that percolate in the mind we’re feeling alone and wondering if there’s life after the breakup. “Was it a crime? / Are we gonna pay? / Are we gonna laugh about it one of these days?”, she asks naively, yet with a palpable touch of cynical resignation. It’s not ‘He’s on the Phone’, sure, but it’s catchy and without overstaying its welcome.

There are missteps on ‘Home Counties’ that are far less successful. On ‘After Hebden’, Cracknell asks in a languid delivery, “so tell me / how does it make you feel?”, as synth notes plod along on the hohum track. ‘Train Drivers in Eyeliner’ wins points for originality – what an image, right? – but compared to the rest of the album, it feels like strange filler. Clocking in at nearly 8 minutes, the lounge-y ‘Sweet Arcadia’ with Cracknell’s spoken words isn’t arty, it goes back to the word I used at the beginning of this review: pretentious. Interludes of ‘Church Pew Furniture Restorer’ with its pastoral, suburban children’s choir vibes, ‘Popmaster’ and ‘Sports Report’ make the album feel more Real World than Music World, but I can’t imagine doing anything with them except skipping over them to get to the next song.

‘Home Counties’ is by no means a must purchase. However, there’s a lot to love here, and its highlights are proof that Saint Etienne still have plenty of gas in the tank. There’s a reason why they are beloved legends in the dance world, and they’ll no doubt be a highlight at festivals this summer.

7.5/10

‘Home Counties’, incredibly Saint Etienne’s ninth studio album, is out tomorrow, the 2nd of June, on PIAS / Heavenly Recordings. The dance pop trio also begin a UK tour tomorrow at London Royal Festival Hall; for all the dates, go here. Additional live festival and tour dates, including those in North America in the autumn, can be viewed on their official Web site. You can read through all of TGTF’s past coverage of Saint Etienne through this link.

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There Goes The Fear is where we tell you about the latest music, gigs, and tours we love and think you should too.

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TGTF is edited by Mary Chang, who is based in Washington, DC. She is joined by writers in England, America and Ireland. It began as a UK music blog by Phil Singer in 2005.

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