Saint Etienne – Home Counties
“What kind of fool do you take me for?” Sarah Cracknell asks on “What Kind of World,” and the answer is, no kind of fool, Sarah. On first or even third listen, Home Counties, a reference to the counties surrounding London, sounds like a lesser achievement than 2012’s Words and Music by Saint Etienne. No single booms out of speakers like “DJ” or “Tonight.” The return of instrumental tunelets for classical instruments stretches running time to nearly an hour. But that third listen – oh boy. Stick around for it. The low key thud of “Magpie Eyes,” the Eurodisco chintz of “Dive,” and, true to their self-reflexive roots, the stone-skipping bass line for “Out of My Mind” (as in “can’t get you out of…”) will have their way with you. Each recalls another touchstone in their catalog (“Like a Motorway” and “Pale Movie,” respectively), each strengthened by twenty-five years of shaping bridges to foil choruses and an understated approach to hyping these strategies that is as anachronistic as the harpsichord solos. Where Home Counties ranks in their catalog depends on listener tolerance for the pastoral. I’m confident I’ll love it as much as Foxbase Alpha, So Tough, Finisterre, and Words and Music.
In a career stretching back to 1991, Cracknell, Bob Stanley, Pete Wiggs, and associates like Ian Catt have specialized in a sugarspun dance-inflected pop garnished with flamenco guitars and stringed instruments whose obsession with limning nostalgia doesn’t reduce their distance from it. When listening to Saint Etienne, I think of Cluny Brown, the gentle Ernst Lubitsch comedy released in 1946 but set before the Blitz: Jennifer Jones’ good cheer at first glance unnerves the pedants of rural England when it’s really another kind of village eccentricity (Home Counties even has a track called “Church Pew Furniture Restorer”). Central to their approach is Cracknell’s breathy soprano, suggesting an acquaintance with insensate joy and a pedagogical remove from the pleasures getting limned; she’s like Henry V aware of his past as Prince Hal but able to laugh about it. In her tones “The Paris of the sixties/the Berlin of the seventies/the Stockholm of the nineties,” to quote Home Counties‘ “Whyteleafe,” memories without referents, stimulate her imagination like the madeleine dipped in tea, the Bombay and tonic-moist mouth puffing on a newly lit cigarette.
But hidden eddies pop up in Home Counties. Singing “Let’s find another planet” over sinister keyboard pads defines their ninth studio album as a post-Brexit recording – a development that gives their reminisces new context. But the playfulness of Home Counties suggests Saint Etienne continue to populate a world of its own creation with personages from ours. We could use more train drivers in eyeliner (she can keep Whitesnake, though). In the glorious “Unopened Fan Mail,” perhaps directed at a musical idol, Cracknell sighs, “Who cares if we both fail/when the jokes never get stale?” as the Carnaby Street-in-1966 arrangement glistens. Cracknels, Stanley, and Wiggs have stumbled on an ideal for living.
Bryson Tiller – True to Self
“Trapsoul” he calls it. On his second album Bryson Tiller sings “We ain’t gonna last, baby” as if hoping the dream comes true. Listening to the best tracks, produced by T-MINUS, Keyz and Wondagurl, the aqueous sound effects and thwacking beats support many of his claims to uniqueness. He doesn’t want your love; he expects your loyalty, and if you count on more, then fuck off. He’s Jodeci, not Jeremih. “I’ve heard it all before,” the twenty-four-year-old moans in “Blowing Smoke. On “In Check,” he compliments a “good girl” who “deserves better,” especially coming from a singer who admits, “If you meet the women I have/It’s hard not to get sidetracked” (co-signer Drake really must hit him up for top lines); faintly a sample of Brandy, Gladys Knight, Tamia, and Chaka Khan’s “Missing You” teases the ear, and from another performer this would serve as a reminder of the kind of strong woman he’s missing. But the problem with True to Self doesn’t start with Tiller’s boorishness: it’s how the boorishness constricts the emotional rage of weak melodies and his nasal singing. It’s the week’s best-selling album, though, so we’ll be dealing with it a while longer.