Saint Etienne might not be familiar to everyone these days, to be honest they were a hipster band before it became fashionable to have a long beard and a man-bun. When they first started with Foxbase Alpha, they sounded hungry and determined with a love of house music as well as 60’s pop.
This made them an instant hit on a level which was not quite accessible to the mainstream press, they were always name dropped by people and seemed to be heading for the stars. However, whilst they had some chart success in the UK, after a while they always seemed to reach a certain level and connected to the general public in a way which lesser acts seemed to manage with ease.
Whilst albums such as So Tough and Tiger Bay reached the top ten in the UK, other albums were hit the top forty with decreasing gains and then they eventually drifted out of the public domain sadly.
Their biggest hit over this side of the pond was “He’s on The Phone” which is a re-working of Étienne Daho’s “Accident (Week-end à Rome)” from the co-produced Reserection EP in 1995, taken from their first best of complication album called Too Young to Die: Singles 1990 – 1995, but they are still known mostly for their cover of “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” which was from Foxbase Alpha. So, their chart days seem to be behind them, but they’ve still been releasing albums.
Sadly, Saint Etienne have not been received with the same press attention of their first works, which is the same with most artists after a while.
This may sound like a strange way to introduce the review for Saint Etienne’s latest album Home Counties, their first since the 2012 release Words and Music by Saint Etienne, but I hope it makes sense once I reach the conclusion of this review. The album is billed as containing 16 songs about Southern England, largely recorded in Berkshire and Kent, manufactured in Germany and it is produced with twenty-five years of musical experience from the musicians involved.
The colourful stickers over the suburban semi-detached UK house give it a Poundland quality on first impressions, making it feel like they are having a dig at the culture which is currently in vogue (be it real or fantasy) in the south of England. It is a hard cover to love, it does not grab the attention as the stickers make it feel like it is on sale, much like half the UK high street as we speak. But this is not saying anything about the music, the cover does not give anything away about what lies underneath.
What we have with Home Counties, is an album that seems to be looking behind the suburban façade, looking at the dark underbelly of modern life with tales of affairs, train strikes, broken lives, hard tales and the false smiles of the broken relationships of modern society.
It is a strange and hard album to love if I am being honest as it feels like it is trying to say so much, but some of it could have been left to the side for another release. It is an almost an hour in length and it does feel like the band still have a hunger, but that previous desire of the band has been replaced by something I was not expecting – it has been replaced by the whiff of middle England and it is not easy to digest.
When you first play Home Counties, songs like “Something New,” “Dive,” and “After Hebden,” they seem a little shallow and smacks of middle aged life, where the sins of the flesh are paramount and there are arguments about the curtains on the horizon. Other songs such as “Train Drivers in Eyeliner” discuss the strikes and crisis that surround Southern Trains last year, it is hardly a subject that is going to set the world on fire and the sound is plodding.
There is also wasted moment here, tracks which are just getting started and end just over the three minute mark such as “What Kind of World” where the song is hitting its stride, then it ends suddenly and without so much as a bye or a leave. Also, there are far too many interludes on this album, tracks which could have been added onto other numbers and it would not have hindered the outcome one iota.
But elsewhere on the Home Counties Saint Etienne are musically on the ball once again.
“Heather” for instance is a dark number about a lady who drifts in and out of people’s lives, “Out of my Mind” is a song that feels like a natural follow up to “He’s on The Phone” which a wistful reminder of how good Saint Etienne are at crafting an indie pop number.
They reach their peak with the seven minute opus that is “Sweet Arcadia,” a song that takes you on a musical journey of dark sounds, strange pipes and into a dark sound that is a contrast to a lot of their previous sounds. These moments are fleeting sadly, gone before you know it and it is back to the horror behind the mask.
The main issue with this album is that the hunger of youth has been replaced with the lusting of midlife, the desire to revisit those youthful days when the sun was always brighter, tomorrow had new promise, nothing was a big issue and taxes were what older people paid.
It is a reminder of the fate which comes to all people, that youth will one day be replaced by the desire to find danger in other ways. So, are there any positives at the end of it all? To be honest, not really and I take no pleasure in writing those words. Home Counties is not a bad album by any stretch of the imagination, that right is still reserved for the latest Linkin Park album.
As I stated at the beginning I wanted to connect my trip down memory lane to the conclusion, to tie it up in a neat bow if you will. The connection in this review is the need for humanity to look back over the shoulder, wishing for the past and failing to see what is good around yourself – it is that midlife dread that people fear committed to vinyl, the album that makes the greener grass sound beige.
I am trying to think of positives outside of a few good songs, but it is far too long and there is little consistency on Saint Etienne’s Home Counties.
Sometimes quantity does not necessarily transfer into quality.