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Saint Etienne
Home Counties Ian Wade , June 1st, 2017 11:54

As Rakim once said 'It ain't where you're from, it's where you're at.’ On Home Counties, Saint Etienne are almost turning that on its head into 'it ain't where you're at, it's where you're from' — or to be specific, 'It doesn't matter where you come from, it doesn't matter where you've been.’ The forgotten towns and areas that inhabit the 'wilderness' between the cities; the new towns built with hope and concrete that never quite bedded into their surroundings — these are the places that built the band. Whether it be Reigate, where Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs come from, or the Chelmsford of Sarah Cracknell.

Places where their dreams of escape first formed all those years ago are calling them back, but now seem somewhat exotic and calming, cheaper, more spacious and relaxed after a couple of decades in the capital. Yet there's still a disquieting vibe. Violence and wrong-doing after dark. A distrust of outsiders. The slight tensing you get, visiting the area again knowing that two thirds of that population voted Leave, rather that the less-than-one-third in your metropolitan liberal constituency. The identity-free new towns where beneath the patriotic cheery bunting, there's something unpleasant lurking. The old precincts and shopping parades with a Fine Fare, chemist and a greengrocers flattened into Pay & Displays with wildly optimistic Farmer's Markets twice a week and a shuttle bus stop for the giant Asda over by the motorway.

Saint Etienne's ninth album - and their first in five years - fits nicely into a pattern of their previous two long players. Where the early albums told of adventure and excitement at the stories of the big city, 2005's Tales From Turnpike House (which initially came packaged with a disc of songs for kids) and 2012's Words and Music by… (Record fairs, Marc Bolan, teenage romance soundtracked by the simple joy of pop) manage to examine and reflect both the band and their fan's lives.

Produced by Bob & Pete with help from Richard X, Shawn Lee, and Gerard Johnson, Home Counties offers an abundance of styles and ideas across 19 tracks, and also has a few nods to the sample-heavy earlier albums. The opener 'The Reunion' may be lost on anyone under the age of 35, but raises a smile to those - okay, me - who know it as what follows The Archers omnibus on the Sundays when Desert Island Discs isn't on.  There will also be a very slim chance that any fan will need to spend nights poring over messageboards about what Popmaster is about either, or indeed not recognise the voice of Ken Bruce. It's also a wry back. Back. BACK! for a band who always claim their new album is their last. Pulled back together for one final job.

A musically diverse affair yet still coherently Saint Etienne, a moment of near-doof comes with the disco-facing 'Dive', whose intro you half expect Suzi Quatro to pop up on. 'What Kind of World' is one of those effortless easy-pop swoons that the Etienne specialise in, allowing them to address the general state of things via a love song - "this is our home but I don't feel at home tonight" - longing for escape from it all. The shimmering loveliness of Take It All In deserves a better description than the trip hop baroque I've got in my notes too. There's the chiming pop of 'Train Drivers In Eyeliner', a nod to the late Nick Sanderson, who propped up his vast income from Earl Brutus by working the London to Brighton line, and the pub talk made real of his - and other dreaming, mostly drunk, outsiders - outlook, encompassing everything from birdwatching to the merits of Whitesnake's 'Fool For Your Loving'.   The key epic, however, is 'Sweet Arcadia', almost closing the album with spoken word reminiscence evoking images of a train passing out of the city and through into the outskirts, over gorgeous electric piano mellowness giving way to a flute-assisted menacing Jarre-y electronic undercurrent. It's one of their most beautiful and rich compositions yet, alongside the melancholic bell-ringing and strings of closer 'Angel of Woodhatch'.

Home Counties is proof why Saint Etienne remain as special as ever. Their ability to whip magic out of the everyday and illuminate the missing pieces is something that few so-called bands-of-the-people have ever been capable of, and after nine albums, is as strong as ever.