CD Review: Saint Etienne, “Home Counties”

There is a great book that was recently released called “All Our Wrong Todays.” It is about a man who lives in a world that enjoys an unlimited supply of renewable energy thanks to an invention that harnesses the power of the earth’s rotation. The short version of the story is that the main character – due to the ensuing events, one may or may not want to consider him the protagonist – has access to time travel, and winds up stuck in our horribly messed-up world (his words, but also mine). It’s a very fun read, and author Elan Mastal gives us some perspective in the process; in his alternate, superior-in-nearly-every-way universe, one in which there is no war or starvation, punk and hip-hop never happened, because there was nothing for people to rebel against. Our world may be awful, but our music, as far as the protagonist is concerned, is much, much better.

It is through that prism that I view Saint Etienne as a band from that other universe, which sounds damning based on my previous statement, but is in fact the opposite. They are the sound of bliss and infinite possibility, where even their bleakest songs (ahem, “Heart Failed (In the Back of a Taxi)”) come with a buoyant melody, and the band’s core sound is a combination of ‘60s-era pastoral pop and ‘90s UK club sensibilities, which is the kind of thing only a band from another world, a more forward-thinking world, would dare to do.

Home Counties, Saint Etienne’s new album and the band’s first in five years, is hopelessly English, arguably the most English album since 2009’s The Duckworth Lewis Method which, for the uninitiated, is a concept album (!) about the game of cricket (!!!). Home Counties is a concept album as well, referring to the counties that surround London, and the lives that its largely middle-class residents lead. There are occasional between-song radio announcements regarding upcoming programming, sports updates, and (impossible) music trivia, breaking up songs about teenagers frustrated by the bubble-wrapped safety of their upbringings, and an imagined conversation between workers and management at a meeting of the union of train drivers. Bacharach-esque melodies, 12-string guitars, harpsichords, lyrical references to both Bowie and Whitesnake, and children’s choirs abound. It is the sound of a band acting their age (acknowledging that they are no longer the club kids), while making fun of it at the same time.

For those looking for something along the lines of the band’s big club bangers like “He’s on the Phone” (none of which, amazingly, cracked the UK Top 10), the closest you’re going to get is the Vicki Sue Robinson-riffing “Dive,” which is top-notch UK disco, and therefore terribly uncool and completely the point. It’s only fitting that an album about the suburban experience features a dance track that, sonically, is decades removed from what the big city clubs are playing (except for the indie disco that Neil Hannon sang about on the Divine Comedy’s album Bang Goes the Knighthood, which would be all over this song). That’s how the suburbs work; the adults largely tune their frequencies to only hear the sounds they want to hear (something familiar). Saint Etienne exploits that truth with ruthless efficiency here.

The majority of the album carries a melancholy, after-hours vibe. The gorgeously catchy “Magpie Eyes” is jangle pop wrapped in machines, “Underneath the Apple Tree” has a driving, Motown-eqsue drum beat (think Texas’ “Black Eyed Boy” with horns instead of strings), and “Heather” is the only other song besides “Dive” to venture into club territory, but not really (the a cappella intro is one step removed from a horror movie score). The album’s showstopper, though, is “What Kind of World,” which is about exactly what you think it’s about.

“What kind of world is it we’re living in / What kind of world is this / I feel like packing it all in / Let’s find another country, nearer the sun / Let’s find another country / A better one.”

Strategically placed as the third-to-last song, just before the sprawling spoken-word art piece “Sweet Arcadia” and the gorgeous closing instrumental “Angel of Woodhatch,” “What Kind of World” is where the band reframes the narrative of the album. Yes, life in the home counties is easy, but resist the urge to get comfortable. The world needs us, all of us, now more than ever. Perhaps the band are finally remembering that they don’t belong here, and are trying to reshape our world in the image of the one they left behind.

With Home Counties, Saint Etienne has placed themselves in a most enviable position, in that they are poised to age more gracefully than anyone from their generation. Those songs like “Like a Motorway” and “Hug My Soul” early in their career, the ones that were written off as missteps by the band themselves due to their underwhelming chart success, feel in retrospect like signs that the band was playing a long con. “You like it now, but you’ll learn to love it later,” to paraphrase a great song from a great album by a not nice person. Home Counties is the later.

This review originally ran June 1, 2017 on Popdose.com.

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Take My Money! Six Nights on Planet Disney

From 3:00 in the afternoon on March 29 until about 10:30 in the morning on April 3, with the exception of one dinner, every single penny my wife and I spent in that stretch went to Disney. Hotels, park passes, in-park meals and drinks, gift shop stuff, a three-day Disney cruise, and the shuttle bus we took to get from hotel to boat and back to the airport (which we will discuss in detail later, using unkind language), all Disney’s now. They have organized their properties in a manner that highly discourages their customers from doing anything outside of the Disney universe, like a group of interconnected black holes. And I would gladly pay for the privilege to do it again. No, I am not suffering from Stockholm syndrome.

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Movie Review: The LEGO Batman Movie

When “The LEGO Movie” was first announced, it was met with a fair amount of skepticism that it was going to be a cynical promotional tool to sell toys. And it may have been that in a way, but it was also smart, funny, and far better than it had the right to be. “The LEGO Batman Movie,” meanwhile, is absolutely a tool designed to promote the LEGO Dimensions platform system, working no less than seven of their licensed intellectual properties into the story. Fortunately, it manages to be a highly entertaining film despite the shameless sales pitch. The absence of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller in the writing and directing chairs is noticeable (they are executive producers only this time around), but this is a very fun, if a bit more predictable, ride.

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I have a podcast! A Shameless Plug for Popdose and my new show Dizzy Heights

As if time wasn’t already at a serious premium, I have decided to launch a podcast. Since it’s much easier for me to talk about music than it is for me to write about it anymore, this seemed like the logical thing to do.

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Amy reviews “Trolls”!

trolls Amy was so taken by the movie “Trolls” that she asked me if I would run her review of the film if she wrote one. I said sure, half thinking that she would start a review, but then never get around to finishing it (and as you can see, it took her a month to finish it. I figure the lesson about meeting your deadlines can wait until she’s 8.) So here it is, my 7-year-old daughter’s first movie review (with spelling and grammar cleaned up by dear old Dad), which she penned a full 18 years before I wrote my first one. The girl is driven.

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Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

fantastic_beasts_1_J.K. Rowling dreamed up the entire Harry Potterverse, and there isn’t a person on the planet who understands these characters better than she does. She has probably written a back story for Mrs. Norris the cat. However, when it comes to the much-anticipated “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” she is making her screenwriting debut, and it is clear that she still has much to learn about writing a script versus writing a novel. What made the film adaptations of her Potter books so successful was that she packed her stories to the gills with details, and allowed an experienced screenwriter (usually Steve Kloves, who is an executive producer here) to pare them down, making them leaner and better. Rowling does not appear to have written a novel of “Fantastic Beasts” that she could then dissect like Kloves did her books. In retrospect, that feels like a mistake.

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This is the only logical explanation for the past 12 months

I will continue updating this through December 31, 2016. It appears that the universe was only getting started when I first posted the piece in November.

devil_flanders_3November 2015. The back table of a Wrigleyville bar.

Cubs: We want a World Series.
Devil: Okay, but it’s gonna cost you.
Cubs: We figured. How much?
Devil: David Bowie, Prince, Alan Rickman, George Martin, Leonard Cohen, Gene Wilder, Leon Russell…
Cubs: WHAT?
Devil: I’m not even remotely finished.
Cubs: You’ve got to be kid–
Devil: George Michael, Pete Burns, Carrie Fisher, Sharon Jones, two thirds of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, Prince Be, Maurice White, Garry Shandling, Merle Haggard, Muhammad Ali, Paul Kantner…
Cubs: Are you done?
Devil: No. Abe Vigoda. Vanity. Arnold Palmer. Gordie Howe. Kevin Meaney. The guy who wrote “Thriller” and “Rock with You.” The tall man from “Phantasm.” The keyboardist from the Black Crowes. The guy from “One Day at a Time.” Glen Frey…
Cubs: Can we trade that entire list and just give you all of the Eagles?
Devil: Everyone asks me that. The answer is always no.
Cubs: Okay, is that the final list?
Devil: Almost. You know that flame thrower on the Marlins?
Cubs: Dude, not Jose Fernandez. He’s 23.
Devil: He’ll live to see 24.
Cubs: Ugh. Anyone else?
Devil: That depends. When was the last time you talked to Lemmy?
Cubs: You wouldn’t.
Devil: I would.
Cubs: I hate you.
Devil: That’s the idea. Also, Donald Trump wins the election the week after the World Series.
Cubs: So, the year that we win the World Series will be remembered by nearly everyone on the planet as the worst year of their lives.
Devil: At last, you understand.
Cubs: Where do we sign?

Note: I have been a Cubs fan since 1986.

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Movie Review: The Bad News Bears

bad_news_bears“The Bad News Bears” is at its best when, like all good major league pitchers, it isn’t afraid to get a little mean. Clemens, Pedro, Unit, Schilling, they’ve all got that ‘don’t mess with me’ vibe that makes them dangerous, even when they’re getting shelled. Likewise, when the movie lets its characters loose and unleashes their inner demons, it’s a lot of fun. The problem is that those moments are more fleeting than they should be.

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Movie Review: The Back-Up Plan

backup_planI don’t know Kate Angelo, the writer of “The Back-Up Plan,” but after seeing the movie, it would appear that she’s never been pregnant, and doesn’t know anyone who has ever been pregnant. There isn’t a single note in this movie that rings true, resorting to cartoonish portrayals of the pregnant woman stereotype (they throw up, they get cravings, their hormones are out of whack) for cheap laughs. When they get really desperate, they cut to a shot of Jennifer Lopez’s dog.

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Movie Review: Trolls

trollsA movie about Troll Dolls is almost comically cynical. Take a product line that has lost its luster, repackage it to the next generation, laugh all the way to the bank. It’s the textbook definition of a cold, calculated, brand-driven cash grab. If that sounds familiar, it’s because that is exactly what people said about “The LEGO Movie” before it came out. Then that movie turned out to be awesome, and the nation ate a fair amount of crow.

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