SAINT ETIENNE — Home Counties

Album: Home Counties

Artist: Saint Etienne

Label: Heavenly

Release Date: June 02, 2017

http://heavenlyrecordings.com/

The Upshot: Dance-pop turns Franco-pop via well-honed and played arrangements – synth pop, girl group, northern soul, dream pop, every variety of comfort food music. Pressed on 2LP heavy black vinyl, of course.

BY JENNIFER KELLY

Very little remains of Saint Etienne’s dance pop origins in this ninth full-length, which celebrates suburbia in radiant Franco-pop terms. You could flash a strobe to disco-ish “Dive” or plot diva-esque personal empowerment to “Out of My Mind,” but the most arresting tracks on this 19-track album are more ruminative. The very best, indeed, may be “Sweet Arcadia,” a limpidly beautiful seven-minute epic whose lyrics consist almost entirely of place names and whose music is a banked glow of slow keyboard tones mixed with birdsong.

The home counties are London’s equivalent to Westchester and Bergen County and certain verdant quarters of Long Island, places that are pleasant enough from a train window, but stultifying over long periods, especially during adolescence. (So close and yet so far!)  So, perhaps, the hemmed in prettiness of the songs matches the manicured green-ness of these environs, the sly sense of humor matches a thinking person’s impatience with the non-eventfulness of village life. Saint Etienne interleaves a gem-like succession of pop songs with odd little radio recordings — a sports score broadcast, a pop quiz — to reinforce the sense of stodgy place.  And yet, perhaps the best, most vivid daydreams occur in straight-laced neighborhoods, like “Train Drivers in Eyeliner” with its sly, subversive advocacy for gender equity in public transportation or tinkly “Whyteleafe”’s dreams of Paris in the 1960s, Berlin in 1970s.

None of this would matter if the music weren’t so good, elevating wispy whimsies into bright, infectious clarity. Throughout, the warm honey velvet of Sarah Cracknell’s voice flows over well-honed and played arrangements – synth pop, girl group, northern soul, dream pop, every variety of comfort food music. The basslines are consistently superior, giving spine and urgency to spun sugar ephemera, and extended instrumentation – a harpsichord-ish synth, a brass band — mix things up. It is very good, as vanilla ice cream or macaroni and cheese can be very good, any lingering embarrassment about the blandness you’re enjoying offset by how delicious it is.

DOWNLOAD: “Sweet Arcadia,” “Train Drivers in Eyeliner”

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