Music

Saint Etienne: Home Counties

Publicity photo via artist Facebook

A concept album that bemuses as much as it enlightens, Home Counties lacks passion and punch even though the Saint Etienne pop sensibility is still there.


Saint Etienne

Home Counties

Label: Sanctuary
US Release Date: 2017-06-02
UK Release Date: 2017-06-02
Amazon
iTunes

Artifice versus authenticity. One of the great conflict points of pop music since something like the Tornados’ Telstar in the early '60s showed that great music could be about more than the sweat on Elvis’s brow or the impassioned scream on Little Richard’s lips. No one would normally associate Kraftwerk’s music with the words “heart”, “fire” and fervor”; but, as the German electro-masters’ three-night stint at London’s Royal Albert Hall has just demonstrated, they remain pop masters, pioneers without equal in their field. The '80s were littered with artifice, which was part of its attraction.

Too much artifice is a criticism that could be justifiably thrown at the near-three-decade career of Saint Etienne. Driven by the old-school leanings of Pete Wicks and Bob Stanley (who started out as music journalists and, in the latter, harbor someone whose writings combine academia and sharp insight in equal measure), and the voice of Sarah Cracknell, simply gorgeous in its smoothness, the omens were auspicious. Saint Etienne’s drawings from the dance house culture of Acid House and Stanley and Wicks’ '60s scholarly knowledge and feel chimed well with the '90s and marked them out from the more orthodox sounds of Britpop. But the air of distance and an impression that the band didn’t care that much about what they were singing, proved to be a handicap. And so they remained more cult than mainstream: one for the insider cognoscenti rather than the hordes that chose to follow Oasis, Blur et al.

And so it has stayed over the nine albums of Saint Etienne’s odyssey. Which brings us to the just-released number nine, in the shape of Home Counties, trailed as a concept album about the collection of counties that circle London in the southeast of England. It’s a quirky concept, given the slightly dull monotone -- in contrast to London’s vibrant primary and diverse colors -- of this quite conservative part of England; and one wonders if the band, surely no little-Englanders, were prompted to adopt it as a response to the UK’s Brexit vote in 2016.

You would have to search hard for Brexit-related undercurrents; more to the point, the concept doesn’t come off. The record may be littered with song titles (“Whyteleaf”, “Angel of Woodhatch”) that reference obscure Home Counties suburbs. The lyrics display an almost unhealthy infatuation with railway stations and, if nothing else, Home Counties does to some extent manage to convey the contrast between banal commuterland and pastoral countryside in southeast England.

But the whole fails to add to the sum of the parts. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Saint Etienne album without some glorious pop moments; the chorused vocals on “Magpie Eyes”; the sub-Motown stomp, complete with Spectorish echo, of “Underneath the Apple Tree” (the epitome of a chaste lyric); the moments on “After Hebden” (which, incidentally, is a, er, village in Yorkshire in northern England) when Cracknell, in flawless voice throughout, lifts the chorus an octave and injects some authentic passion into what she is singing.

Unfortunately, there are just as many leaden interludes: “Heather”, a club song, which seems unsure of its direction (even if it possesses the priceless Delphic lyric: “she comes and goes like the warmth in the daylight”); “Out of My Mind”, where the ubiquitous synthpop backing starts to pall; mundane instrumentals like “Church Pew Furniture Restorer”. “Sweet Arcadia” was probably meant to be the signature track, but it doodles and eventually vanishes into nothingness alongside its train journey.

In conclusion, Home Counties is not without its high points, and Cracknell’s vocals deliver a sugar rush like few others. But the artifice -- the sensation that the band is telling you an in-joke that is simply too knowing and clever-by-half -- remains present and correct. Saint Etienne will always be interesting, and may still have a classic album in them, but maybe they need to drop the intellectual tendencies and simply embrace the music of the idols whom they so clearly adore.

5
Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.

Film

The 10 Best Films of Sir Alan Parker

Here are 10 reasons to mourn the passing of one of England's most interesting directors, Sir Alan Parker.

Music

July Talk Transform on 'Pray for It'

On Pray for It, Canadian alt-poppers July Talk show they understand the complex dualities that make up our lives.

Music

With 'Articulation' Rival Consoles Goes Back to the Drawing Board

London producer Rival Consoles uses unorthodox approaches on his latest record, Articulation, resulting in a stunning, beautiful collection.

Film

Paranoia Goes Viral in 'She Dies Tomorrow'

Amy Seimetz's thriller, She Dies Tomorrow, is visually dazzling and pulsating with menace -- until the color fades.

Music

MetalMatters: July 2020 - Back on Track

In a busy and exciting month for metal, Boris arrive in rejuvenated fashion, Imperial Triumphant continue to impress with their forward-thinking black metal, and death metal masters Defeated Sanity and Lantern return with a vengeance.

Books

Isabel Wilkerson's 'Caste' Reveals the Other Kind of American Exceptionalism

By comparing the American race-based class system to that of India and Nazi Germany, Isabel Wilkerson makes us see a familiar evil in a different light with her latest work, Caste.

Film

Anna Kerrigan Prioritizes Substance Over Style in 'Cowboys'

Anna Kerrigan talks with PopMatters about her latest film, Cowboys, which deviates from the common "issues style" approach to LGBTQ characters.

Music

John Fusco and the X-Road Riders Get Funky with "It Takes a Man" (premiere + interview)

Screenwriter and musician John Fusco pens a soulful anti-street fighting man song, "It Takes a Man". "As a trained fighter, one of the greatest lessons I have ever learned is to walk away from a fight without letting ego get the best of you."

Books

'Run-Out Groove' Shows the Dark Side of Capitol Records

Music promoter Dave Morrell's memoir, Run Out Groove, recalls the underbelly of the mainstream music industry.

Film

It's a Helluva of a World in Alain Corneau's 'Série Noire'

Alain Corneau's Série Noire is like a documentary of squalid desperation, albeit a slightly heightened and sardonic one.

Music

The 15 Best Americana Albums of 2015

From the old guard reaffirming its status to upstarts asserting their prowess, personal tales voiced by true artists connected on an emotional level in the best Americana music of 2015.

Music

Dizzy's Katie Munshaw Keeps Home Fires Burning with 'The Sun and Her Scorch'

In a world turned upside down, it might be the perfect time to take a new album spin with Canadian dream-pop band Dizzy and lead singer-songwriter Katie Munshaw, who supplies enough emotional electricity to jump-start a broken heart.

Music

Nkem Njoku and Ozzobia Brothers Bring Summery Highlife to 'Ozobia Special'

Summery synths bring highlife of the 1980s on a reissue of Nkem Njoku and Ozzobia Brothers' innovative Ozobia Special.

Music

'The Upward Spiral' Is Nicolas Bougaïeff's Layered and Unique Approach to Techno

On his debut album for Mute, Berlin-based producer Nicolas Bougaïeff applies meticulous care and a deft, trained ear to each track, and the results are marvelous.

Music

How BTS Always Leave You Wanting More

K-pop boy band BTS are masterful at creating a separation between their public personas and their private lives. This mythology leaves a void that fans willingly fill.

Music

The Psychedelic Furs' 'Made of Rain' Is Their First Album in Nearly 30 Years

The first album in three decades from the Psychedelic Furs beats expectations just one track in with "The Boy That Invented Rock and Roll".

Music

Fontaines D.C. Abandon the Familiar on 'A Hero's Death'

Fontaines D.C.'s A Hero's Death is the follow-up to the acclaimed Dogrel, and it features some of their best work -- alongside some of their most generic.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.