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Even if you’ve missed out on Jack Antonoff’s side project-turned-runaway success Bleachers, you’ve definitely heard his work before. Best known as the guitarist from Fun, Antonoff also has an impressive roster of writing credits, from penning Sara Bareilles’ “Brave” to his work on Taylor Swift’s 1989, and most recently a forthcoming track from Lorde.
Like many prolific songwriters, it should be no surprise that at some point he would want a spotlight on himself. Bleachers has given him a chance to play with his own ideas — which happen to be sunny pop tunes with an emo sensibility. His band’s sophomore album Gone Now (★★★) finds Antonoff more sure of himself, but still working out what exactly he wants Bleachers to be.
Given his credentials, the album’s sound unsurprisingly lands somewhere between Top 40 pop and the radio-ready indie rock of Fun. Under the fist-pumping indie pop, however, the album’s subject matter is heavier than the shimmering production might let on. The lyrics are thick with loss, angst and nostalgia, feelings which “Goodbye” drives home with its litany of farewells scattered over the light plinking of a keyboard, itself a recurring theme on this album.
If it all sounds very melodramatic, well, that’s sort of the point. It’s no coincidence that in the opener “Dream of Mickey Mantle,” Antonoff sets the scene in his childhood bedroom, a place he revisits in a reprise towards the end of the album. Gone Now takes us on a retrospective tour of Antonoff’s teenage brain, dredging up emotions expected to be left in high school. While it is definitely self-indulgent and even a little obnoxious, he deserves credit for recalling the confusion and messiness of adolescent emotion.
Though most of us grow up to brush our heightened emotions off as teenage melodrama, Antonoff understands that those feelings were real at the time, and that we often carry at least some of this baggage with us into adulthood, whether we realize it or not.
If Bleachers’ first album was largely the result of Antonoff playing with his sound to see what stuck, this time he has gone for a more unified sound. After opening with a pair of expertly produced experimental tracks, Gone Now falls into a pattern. There’s no doubt that Antonoff can write a good hook, but an album that constantly builds up to one hook after another results in an aimlessness that undermines the narrative arc he tries to build.
Tellingly, the album is strongest when sticking to its core themes but breaking from its own structure, as it does on the Carly Rae Jepsen duet “Hate That You Know Me,” a bright pop number on the angst of being loved in spite of your faults.
While Gone Now does represent a step up for Bleachers, its unevenness gives the impression of a band that hasn’t quite found their footing.
ON FIRST GLANCE, it may seem odd that Saint Etienne, a band born out of the British club scene of the early ’90s, has now found itself singing about the comforts of suburbia. Home Counties (★★★★) takes its name from a region of southern England long mythologized as a pastoral heartland and populated by well-off suburbanites who have opted to flee London’s congestion and soaring house prices.
Saint Etienne’s vision of home is a quaint, semi-suburban, semi-rural idyll, a short train ride from the capital but worlds removed from its hectic cosmopolitan energy. The line between the actual geographical Home Counties and the fuzzy, nebulous idea of “home” is a blurry one. Despite its specificity, the vision Saint Etienne conjures up here should be familiar to anyone who has fled to, or from, the suburbs.
By all accounts, Saint Etienne is a band that’s easily bored, and as a result rarely boring. The album is a playful and eclectic effort, hearkening back to their Foxbase Alpha years. Sarah Cracknell’s calming, folky voice is the only real constant as Home Counties jumps from ’60s soul-funk to electro-industrial grinds to the disco-ish “Dive.” Staid BBC radio announcements pop up as interludes throughout. For those who happen to be hanging onto some old audio equipment, they’ve even put out a cassette tape version of the album, likely a nod to their use of found footage throughout.
Home Counties is sentimental, even saccharine at times, but always in a winking kind of way. It’s an album that sounds like its cover art, a brightly painted, nondescript house in the suburbs on a sunny day, covered in faux stickers advertising the subject matter within.
Though complaints about the inauthenticity and isolation of the suburbs are as old as suburbia itself, Saint Etienne’s musically adventurous inclinations and wry sense of humor somehow give it the feeling of a fresh take. Home Counties manages to be both a love letter and a merciless parody, but above all, it’s an embrace of the eccentricities and the mess of contradictions that make up life in suburban England.
Gone Now and Home Counties are available now from Amazon.com and iTunes, or via streaming services.
Bleachers is appearing live on June 23 at Ram’s Head Live, 20 Market Place, in Baltimore. Visit ramsheadlive.com.
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