When you’re branded as a cabaret band, it doesn’t exactly raise expectations that you’re capable of anything other than luring a crowd to the dance floor and keeping them enticed by simply maintaining a backbeat. Consequently, it ought to come as little surprise that in 25 plus years of purveying their signature sound, Saint Etienne hasn’t managed to avoid being typecast as a group capable of providing only an evening’s exultation. A prolonged legacy never seemed to be in the cards, and yet here they are, five years after their last outing — which itself appeared seven years after its predecessor — sounding more vibrant than ever. Seemingly in danger of wearing out their welcome, and with plenty yet to prove, Saint Etienne delivers their best effort yet on Home Counties.
As a result, it’s a pleasant surprise to find the new album Home Counties as vibrant as ever and far more tuneful than skeptics might expect. In essence, it’s two albums in one, a 19 song travelogue that effectively makes the comeback complete. As Andy Miller points out in his descriptive liner notes, the trio’s aural description of London’s outlying neighborhoods brings a glimpse of nostalgia similar to the feeling the Kinks evoked with Village Green Preservation Society, yet in a decidedly modern context. Beginning with a faux radio introduction (which reappears later as well) the group quickly leap into a cadre of catchy melodies that subsist quite well even without a persistent backbeat to hurry them along. While there are the expected nods to those who prefer to move and groove — “Dive” and “Heather” being the most apparent — other tracks like “Magpie Eyes,” “After Hebden,” “Whytleafe,” the especially lovely instrumental interlude “Church Pew Furniture Restorer” and the song it segues into, “Take It All In” show that at this point in their collective career, the trio is far more than the one dimensional outfit their critics might claim them to be.
While their connection to club culture may remain intact, Saint Entienne’s penchant for pop has never been stronger. Think the shimmering sound of Everything But the Girl in their original incarnation. In other words, both admirers and those unawares well ought to be grateful for