Saint Etienne – Home Counties
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 arrangements here are crisp and atmospheric, but never imposing. The piano-led Something New, for example, or the whimsical harpsichord at the beginning of Whyteleafe, provide gentle, loping soundtracks that Sarah Cracknell's breathy vocals can glide over, painting beautiful pictures of the bucolic English countryside.
By utilising samples from Radio 2 and 4, a brief snippet of a classified football report and soft orchestral/choral interludes, Saint Etienne create a strong sense of rural Englishness across Home Counties, as well as allowing plenty of breathing space between tracks. Penultimate song, Sweet Arcadia, is peak Etienne as Cracknell lists off the little towns that one might pass on a train journey around the South of England, considering their origins and history with the same specificity as The Clientele or Lemon Jelly, but without their respective appetites for melancholia or surrealism; just a wide-eyed, honest rendering.
Whether musing about 'heading home across the moors' or 'DVDs in the boot sale', the band rarely deviate from their thematic nexus, which helps to tie the album together as it sprawls over nineteen tracks. As they move closer to the middle ground, Saint Etienne are far from re-inventing the wheel, but in writing delectable pop hooks about a place as decidely uncool as the home counties, that was never really the point.
Listen to: Take It All In, Sweet Arcadia