A festive fortnight in the countryside yields polished pop aplenty…
'Red Kite'

In the pop scholars department, it is somewhat criminal that Saint Etienne aren’t held in the same regard as the Pet Shop Boys. Both acts have an astronomically sharp grasp of melody and both consistently deliver touchingly direct songs that stand the test of time.

Central to both acts’ enduring appeal is having a distinctive and expressive vocalist. Eighteen years on from her first solo offering, Sarah Cracknell has conjured a pastoral pop album nurtured across two weeks of work in a barn either side of Christmas. Recorded and produced by the not inconsiderable talents of Colorama’s Carwyn Ellis and Seb Lewsley, who has worked with the likes of Edwyn Collins and The Cribs, ‘Red Kite’ is a predictably charming listen.

A luscious, vintage soundscape runs through much of the record, with ‘Underneath The Stars’ propelled by a reverb-drenched thundering drumbeat and sugary Sixties backing vocals, while ‘In The Dark’ is driven by a string arrangement Robert Kirby wouldn’t have disowned. Cracknell’s voice has such a precise, polished tone that the presence of Nicky Wire on ‘Nothing Left To Talk About’ feels starkly different. Despite a splendidly noisy solo record, the Manics’ bassist and lyricist is not known for his virtuoso displays behind the mic, but his slightly ragged, emotionally naked delivery is a perfect fit for a song exploring the dwindling of a relationship.

The Mid-Noughties shimmering indie jangle of ‘Hearts Are For Breaking’ sounds like an old standard by the time its three minutes come to a close, while ‘It’s Never Too Late’ is the place to start for fans of Belle and Sebastian and The Pastels looking for a new favourite record. ‘Take The Silver’ turns the syrupy-sheen up to eleven, however, and misfires in the most endearing way possible, while ‘Favourite Chair’ feels a little too slight for an album closer, coming as it does on the heels of one of the record’s most intriguing moments.

‘I Am Not Your Enemy’ struts about, with a Steve Nieve-aping organ figure at its core and some wonderfully wonky electric guitar riffing preceding the verses. As Cracknell mentioned in a recent chat with Clash, this darker, even malevolent, sound is “not usual” for her and part of the thrill is simply hearing such a recognisable, distinctive voice doing something different. It’s a glorious tune with a sudden, dramatic ending that would have given ‘Red Kite’ a stylish send off.

The delicate conclusion is hardly surprising, adhering to the overarching sense of gentle majesty that permeates ‘Red Kite’. On occasion, it gets a little too pleasant, but, when the songs soar, it’s an infectious listen and, with the prospect of summer sunshine ahead, it will serve to soundtrack hazy days.

7/10

Words: Gareth James

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Related: In Conversation - Saint Etienne's Sarah Cracknell

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