Earlier this year Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs released a compilation about the weather. In it the Saint Etienne bandmates celebrated “the autumnal sound of Britain at the turn of the 1970s, looking on through wet window panes” via carefully chosen songs such as John Cale's Big White Cloud and The Parlour Band's Early Morning Eyes. Fast forward a season or two, and those window panes are flung wide open to let the summer sunshine in.
Even when they were a part of the 'alternative dance' scene of the early nineties, Saint Etienne never fully bought into the bombastic, hedonistic style that contemporaries such as The Prodigy or Madchester bands were plying. They moved towards more folk and ambient influences on 1994's Tiger Bay and since then they've honed their songcrafting to the point where they simply make pop music with the odd electronic/ambient flourish, rather than allowing the different styles their former precedence. Home Counties is a loosely Kinks-ian concept album, revelling in the staid, pastoral surroundings of southern England: the "doughnut of shires that ring the capital", explains Bob Stanley.
The members of Saint Etienne began work on their ninth album with a basic concept in mind of paying tribute to the suburbs of London where the trio spent their formative years. Titled Home Counties, the album was recorded quickly with producer Shawn Lee and a room full of vintage gear and instruments. Thanks to that, the record Home Counties most resembles in their discography is Good Humor, but where that album exuded a cool Scandinavian sheen, this one is warm and inviting.
"Pretty much everyone we grew up with was drawn to London," observes St Etienne singer Sarah Cracknell on their fascination with the best city in the world - albeit from their original homes in Reigate (Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley) and Old Windsor (Sarah). "It was a magnet." Returning to the London imprint on which they released some of their most important music ('Only Love Will Break Your Heart', 'Filthy'), they sound as assured as ever on 'Home Counties'. On the dreamy 'Whyteafe', they discuss Crawley (!) and "the sweet municipal dream" while 'Dive', 'Heather' and 'Unopened Fan Mail' are up their with their best.
S aint Etienne's music always has a firm sense of time and place, somewhere around London, sometime between 1963 and yesterday. So it's no surprise that the trio have finally written a whole album about the towns they grew up in. If the concept might seem a bit Brexit, the execution is flawless and winningly witty. Chirpy, unpretentious pop such as Out of My Mind rubs up against Dive's excitable suburban disco thump and the sophisticated brilliance of Sweet Arcadia.
Whether it's "Train Drives with Eyeliners" or a visit with the "Church Pew Furniture Restorer", it's within the radius of the suburbs of London that Saint Etienne reminisce about youthful days while searching for pop perfection once again. Maybe 'reminisce' is not quite the right term, as the trio do not exactly have the fondest of memories, electing instead to poke fun at the quiet suburban lifestyle with its people rooted in habit and shrouded in a boredom. Pop perfection, on the other hand, is always close at hand when you are listening to a Saint Etienne record.
As concept albums go, Home Counties is a nice idea, and Saint Etienne are the right band for it. Eschewing the familiar lie of cricket on the village green in favour of the reality that is suburban commutersville, they've made a summery soundtrack to train journeys in and out of London, through rows of houses that are all the same. And while it's an admirable idea, it suffers from being just a little bit too well-crafted and deliberate - the bass in Take It All In that's is slightly too reminiscent of Serge Gainsbourg; the synth-pop of Out Of My Mind that sounds so much like it comes from the 80s that it feels like a genre exercise.
The ninth studio album from English indie pop trio Saint Etienne explicitly references place in every aspect of its presentation, from lyrics to artwork to the title itself--which is English slang for a loosely-defined ring of commuter communities that surround the city of London. For American listeners, the closest comparison would be the outskirts beyond the edges of New York's outer boroughs or the suburbs in general. But neither of those exactly matches the ambience of a setting that Blur guitarist Graham Coxon once described with an image of blue tit birds pecking for the cream at the top of home-delivered milk bottles.
Saint Etienne prove they are still capable of pop greatness. Stylistically more diverse (see the Latin flavor of "Dive," and the dustings of '60s baroque pop sprinkled about the album) and using more real instruments than on previous outings, the London trio pay homage to the suburbs from which they sprang. Casting an ear over their entire career, Home Counties comes complete with the BBC radio snippets beloved of their early records.
As Rakim once said 'It ain't where you're from, it's where you're at. ' On Home Counties, Saint Etienne are almost turning that on its head into 'it ain't where you're at, it's where you're from' -- or to be specific, 'It doesn't matter where you come from, it doesn't matter where you've been. ' The forgotten towns and areas that inhabit the 'wilderness' between the cities; the new towns built with hope and concrete that never quite bedded into their surroundings -- these are the places that built the band.