What a world Saint Etienne live in. Always 1975. Always the school holidays. Always in that weird and thrilling netherworld between teenager and adult. Everything is possible and yet tantalisingly out of reach. The further they move away from the mid 70’s, the better the mid 70’s seem to be. Cracknell, Wiggs and Stanley are the postmodern equivalent of the old blokes in the pub, nursing pints of Stout whilst they wax lyrical about the times when everything was a shade of beige and closed down at 10.30.
Saint Etienne know their demographic. The C86 Generation are all grown up now and in this unsettled, post Brexit malaise, they’ve got their rose-tinted spectacles firmly clamped on their heads, so Saint Etienne are eager to ease their pain with a large dose of lovely, warm nostalgia. But it’s nostalgia for a time that didn’t exist. Doesn’t matter. It was lovely there, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it?
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“Home Counties” will confuse the hell out of anyone outside of the UK. Every reference is the dictionary definition of parochial – ring-roads, roundabouts, Radio 4, Popmaster – non-Brit Saint Etienne fans are going be doing a lot of Google searches. The good news is that even if the lyrics leave you scratching your head, the tunes are up there with the best the band have ever done.
Saint Etienne are a kind of Art-School Abba. They share the same thrilling yet anodyne qualities that Sweden’s finest have in spades. “Out of My Mind” burbles along on a bed of sequencers and drum machines and yet it still sounds organic. The secret ingredient? Sarah Cracknell. No showboating or histrionics, she purrs demurely over the songs on “Home Counties” adding a human element to even the most programmed of tracks. She’s a class act.
As ever, it’s an eclectic collection of tunes – there’s Mellotron driven Pop (“Something New”), Euro-Disco (“Dive”) and even a stab at a James Bond theme in “What Kind of World”. Where’s John Barry when you need him? Throw in a spoken world interlude from Ken Bruce and some 70’s football results and it’s business as usual for Saint Etienne. But really good business.
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“Sweet Arcadia” is the centrepiece of “Home Counties”. A ProgRock-tastic 7.43, it’s a spoken word piece over a flute heavy backing with Cracknell detailing a train journey, away from The Big City, listing every station and hedgerow she passes. It’s the Essex version of “Trans-Europe Express”. A bit too much? Yeah. It’s very nearly self-parody and for the first time on the record, we move from whimsy to pretension. Shame, really. It’s left to the final track, the pastoral instrumental “Angel of Woodhatch” to pour the custard on the tinned pears and send us off to our beds feeling all warm and fuzzy.
Saint Etienne have taken Ray Davies’ model of Little England and have given it an urban makeover, but the birds still sing and the streets smell like it’s just stopped raining. As Morrissey once said, “ I like it here, can I stay?”
“Home Counties” is available now via Heavenly. The albums track-listing is as follows…
Church Pew Furniture Restorer
Take It All In
Underneath The Apple Tree
Out Of My Mind
Train Drivers In Eyeliner
Unopened Fan Mail
What Kind Of World
Angel Of Woodhatch