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. The reason for this is Home Counties, Saint Etienne’s ninth album, one of their very sunniest to date. A concept piece about southern English suburbia, with its quirks and pitfalls, the album blends fully fledged songs with field recordings and snippets of radio broadcasts. We hear travel updates, football scores and unusual statistics around the familiar, comforting tones of Sarah Cracknell.
The scene is a cosy one, but the songs elevate Home Counties above mere whimsy. The album’s calling card Magpie Eyes makes this abundantly clear early on, laden with the possibility of romance, as does After Hebden, where Cracknell implores that we “turn the news off… I feel old”. It is a concession to the state of the world outside the windows of this sweet Arcadia, bringing a necessary, grounded view.
Musically the net is cast far and wide. Pure pop abounds, the electronic additions of the softly brushed variety rather than outright power productions. Heather is a notable exception, with its weirdly stilted beats. Dive is an absolute winner, a piece of pure summer sunshine that is less Home Counties, more Caribbean holiday. The flip side is the brief but purely English reserve of Church Pew Furniture Restorer. Here the trio bring in children’s voices and oboe, creating a plaintive atmosphere that, while verging on twee, still brings a tear to the eye.
The radio intermissions- especially the sonorous tones of Ken Bruce – provide warm solace, and after Heather we enjoy a pleasant amble to consider the state of the railways. “The buffet will be blasting Whitesnake, Fool For Your Lovin’ no more,” sighs Cracknell. A far cry from Southern Rail train strikes.
Only this and Sweet Arcadia leave a cloying aftertaste. It is reasonable to assume Saint Etienne would celebrate Britain explicitly, but this is one extended jam too far and feels like a work of fantasy rather than fiction, Cracknell warmly intoning the names of key landmarks. Thankfully the preceding What Kind Of World puts it in context with the sentiments “let’s find another country, let’s find a better one,” while the low piano rumblings of Breakneck Hill also explore a darker side.
It is small beer though, for Home Counties is Saint Etienne at their very best, blending breezy observations and harmonies with a deep seated emotion, centred around the need for a place to call home. In these uncertain times, a blast of hot sunshine and a listen to this record certainly make the world a better place to be.