Fleur East Flourishes on ‘Love, Sax and Flashbacks': Album Review
In 2015, it can actually be harder than ever to pinpoint just when a pop star is “born." From buzz singles to endless teasers for a new music video, pop star moments can often feel diluted.
Thankfully, Fleur East knows how to deliver such a moment.
Less than a year after placing in second in 2014’s X Factor, she returned to the UK TV talent show to perform her debut single, "Sax." Sure, you could see the influence of "Uptown Funk" in both the song itself and in the performance — especially given that East’s take on the then-not-released-in-the-UK hit was seen as her breakthrough. But as the performance ramped up, as East back-flipped mid song, nailed every move and oozed pop star glow, you suddenly saw it. This was not just prime pop spectacle, but a statement of intent from a pop talent with plenty of offer.
Mere weeks after that show stopper, East is unleashing a full-length album on the world, out today (December 4). For those who saw world-conquering pop chops in East’s X Factor turn, it can’t come quickly enough. It’s a quick turn-around for the X Factor behemoth: To have a runner-up release an album this soon is unusual — especially when said album isn’t merely a hastily cobbled together covers record.
Love, Sax and Flashbacks comes quickly after East’s TV moment, and the pace of the material is similarly unrelenting. If you were hoping for some kind of Emelie Sandé style emoting, or even an Adele style mega-ballad, you won’t get that here. What you do have is an uptempo cocktail of throwback-meets 2015 pop ideas, and the kind of self-assured delivery and of-the-moment lyrics required for 2015 chart dominance.
Lead single "Sax" kicks off the LP, and it’s still an engaging (if perhaps a bit too "Uptown Funk"-esque) lead single. The album version sneaks in a bridge missing from the radio edit, where East declares “Just play that song I know / Take a deep breath and blow”; the kind of double entendre and statement of intent that ripples through the rest of the tracks.
Fleur East isn’t arriving to pop as a mere novice. 2005 saw her last one week on the X Factor’s live shows as a member of the group Addictiv Ladies before years of hustling as a session singer, releasing her own dance-tinged material. Her turn on The X Factor suggested a performer who was incredibly self-possessed, and that shines through on this release.
East is at her best when investing sprightly R&B-pop with an earnest charm sometimes lacking in today’s pop landscape. It’s there in spades on cuts like "Breakfast" and "More and More." Both are bright and cheery, with a whiff of Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie in their DNA. In fact, East’s irony-free warbling keeps tracks like these infectious where they could be cheesy.
Similarly, "Gold Watch," with it’s funk-laden Prince-lite stomp, is the most "Uptown Funk"-esque tune here (aside from the studio version of her X Factor cover!) that bursts into a hook so brash and silly you’ll care little of how familiar it is.
Cuts like "Love Me Or Leave Me Alone" feel more like a proper R&B throwback; brass and clattering hi-hats letting East channel the kind of sass Beyoncé displayed on album tracks like "Suga Mama." And yet, as lines go “I’ll leave your ass quicker than a Snapchat” is both cutting and incredibly of the moment.
One of the best examples of East’s retro love comes on "Over Getting Over," which sends East straight back to Chic-inspired disco utopia. The verses sizzle with a Sister Sledge touch, before a bridge and chorus jump into view that feel very Donna Summer.
However, there are plenty of nods to contemporary pop too: Album standout "Paris" may not be a show-stopper in the vein of "Sax," but it’s a heady mix of woozy come-ons, a nagging groove and an instant chant-along chorus that immediately worms into your brain, unlike breezy but forgettable filler track "Kitchen," which feels somewhat overcooked.
East’s own commitment to choreography is evident in just how ready to be danced to some of the tracks are. Case in point: "Baby Don’t Dance." It flings East in a early '90s hip-hop block party direction with a cleverly used sample of breakbeat classic "The 900 Number" by the 45 King (you’ve heard it before, trust me) for another album highlight that feels ripe for a perfectly choreographed music video. "Tears Will Dry" is sleek electro-pop that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on an Alexandra Burke album — or really any pop starlet release of the last few years. That’s not a bad thing per se, certainly the slick chorus is fun, but it’s a reminder of the sometimes phoned-in nature of songs on a project with as quick a turnaround as this.
"Never Say When" closes out the standard edition of the album with a Janet Jackson style vocal that dips into a breezy synth-funk stomp that you can imagine being sung by Patrice Rushen or Gwen Guthrie back in the day. And though it sounds slight, it’s an interesting showcase for East’s mix of breathy and impassioned vocals, and a pretty neat way to wrap up the fast-paced journey she’s taken us on.
In true pop album tradition, the deluxe edition tracks are something of a mixed bag, with only "Serious," a fun track that sails into disco territory, standing out. Also included are covers of both "Girl On Fire" (which was featured in an ad on UK TV) and the studio take on East’s "Uptown Funk" cover, already a popular track on iTunes last year after she performed it on X Factor. ("Uptown Funk" is the sole bonus track on the standard edition.) Both are well sung, if somewhat pedestrian, and show just how lucky East has been with her original tracks.
Love, Sax and Flashbacks is not a game-changing pop masterpiece, and at times, the constant throwbacks start to border on pastiche. What it does have is a breezy, likable charm, and enough interesting twists to feel like a promising start for Fleur East on her quest to become an all-singing, all-dancing pop sensation.
As a way to let her showcase warmth and chart-dominating potential, this is an excellent calling card. And in a category usually stuffed with rushed debut releases, it’s a true standout.