Release Date: Jun 15, 2015
Record label: Cherry Red
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Pop
When Sarah Cracknell last released a solo album, Tony Blair had just assumed power and Spice Girls were a fixture in the charts. The Saint Etienne singer’s second set, recorded in a barn, suggests a 1960s gem unearthed in a junk shop, Cracknell’s sultry voice buoyed by atmospheric strings and a sense of drama absent from most pop. In the Dark is both charming and unsettling, while On the Swings sounds like the soundtrack to a film set on Paris’s Left Bank circa 1965.
The nervous energy of the after-party lingered amid Sarah Cracknell’s 1997 debut Lipslide – but her second solo album finds the Saint Etienne vocalist escaping the club for the countryside. Working with Edwyn Collins producers Carwyn Ellis and Seb Lewsley, these pastoral acoustic ballads are intimate and innocent; In the Dark referencing the shy solitude of Nick Drake or Colin Blunstone, as the foolish sorrow of 1960s girl groups haunt its lyrics. Infidelity and betrayal are ever present, such as on Hearts Are for Breaking (“You only wanted him because he only wanted me”) or the smoky album opener On the Swings (“She’s never going to stay in your arms / She’s only around for a while and then she’s gone”), while It’s Never Too Late and Underneath the Stars recall the chic whimsy of Belle and Sebastian or Stereolab.
Any band that sticks around long enough, and garners enough acclaim, will eventually find their history clotted with misconceptions. For Saint Etienne, these mostly involve the role of vocalist Sarah Cracknell, who was dismissed routinely as lightweight, a figurehead in a feather boa. To be fair, Cracknell was originally one among many guest vocalists; the door simply stopped revolving after she walked in.
Since Sarah Cracknell was busy being the voice of Saint Etienne, it's hard to blame her too much for taking almost two decades to deliver her second solo album. After giving Red Kite a spin though, it's good enough that it's easy to wish that she had done it sooner. Unlike her 1997 album Lipslide, this time out Cracknell takes a giant step away from the patented Saint Etienne sound, surrounding her whisper-soft vocals with chamber pop, country-rock, and folk trappings (i.e., lots of guitars) while capturing the same sepia-toned nostalgic melancholy so much of their work has.
It is, believe it or not, Saint Etienne‘s 25th anniversary this year. First formed in 1990, Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs experimented with a couple of vocalists when they first started, before settling on a certain Sarah Cracknell. It’s a partnership that’s flourished over the decades, and is one that has seen Cracknell only tempted down the solo road once before.
It’s been 18 years since Cracknell’s debut solo album hit the shelves, so a sequel was long overdue. The good news is that those beautiful, measured vocal cords are in caressingly lovely form. Ragdoll’s 60s-ish shimmer is a fine example of the singer’s intimate ease of delivery throughout the album, and the naïve, yearning tales of Underneath The Star and Favourite Chair ache with loneliness.