All Saints March Ahead with ‘Red Flag’ : Album Review
Life after pop: It can be a scary place, but one we've grown used to seeing every day.
We watch it on reality television, where former TRL stars like Christina Milian and Nick Carter turn up and tie knots in a bid for cable controversy. We read about it in autobiographies where the trials and tribulations of popstardom are tested against personal woes – Cheryl Cole’s My Story (poor!), Geri Halliwell’s If Only (poor and fat!), Geri Halliwell’s Just For The Record (wealthy and too thin!) And we consume it on social media where once platinum sellers like Danity Kane’s Aubrey O’Day and O-Town’s Ashley Parker Angel trade mics in 4 noodz.
And so, it is rare when a pop artist can recapture the magic of their glory days, bringing more than just a dose of nostalgia back to the music scene...but it’s not impossible.
Take That has managed four No. 1 albums in the UK since their reformation in 2006. The Spice Girls reunited for new music and a hugely successful world tour in 2007. And strategic one-off appearances from groups like NSYNC and Destiny’s Child only left fans hoping for more reconciliations.
Today (April 8) sees another relic making a bid to go from bargain bin greatest hits back to Top of the Pops. This time, British girl group All Saints who release their fourth studio album, Red Flag.
The history of All Saints is a brief but not uncomplicated moment in British pop history. The girls got their break in 1997 when they released their self-titled album and debut single, “Never Ever." If the Spice Girls represented the epitome of manufactured, high gloss pop at the time, All Saints were presented to the public as Anti Spice; four rough 'n’ tough ladies in cargo pants bearing haunted harmonies, sexy lyrics and Red Hot Chili Pepper samples.
By 2001, after a handful of hits, it was all over. The girls disbanded due to mounting tensions and a fight over who would wear an army jacket during a photoshoot (which was recently alluded to in the new video for “One Strike”). There was a brief reunion in 2006, and the release of their third album Studio 1 – a reggae-tinged affair that only managed to peak at No. 40 on the UK charts. The group was dropped from their deal with Parlophone and split once again.
Red Flag finds the now 40-something Saints in a peculiar space. They are a band built on nostalgia, but really with not that much nostalgia to offer.
“Never Ever” was a massive hit around the world and “Pure Shores,” while a smash in Europe, still needs some memory jogging on U.S. soil (“It’s that song from the Leonardo DiCaprio movie The Beach, remember?” I’ve had to say on countless occasions.) In 2016, it’s a very small group of people who are demanding an All Saints record, and certainly not one casual listeners from the '90s were anticipating. With the Saints stakes seemingly low, it is perhaps the reason Red Flag might be the band’s best album of their career.
If we believe the girls’ PR spin for this record, it came about in the most organic of fashion following the ill-fated money play of a reunion in 2006. There are no major hits here, but the album sounds like what an All Saints album in 2016 should sound like.
The album opens with the ominous lead single, “One Strike.” The song, written by Shaznay Lewis about Nicole Appleton’s divorce from Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher, captures the sass and spirit of the Saints’ past, but with a Xanax-addled and cabernet-coated angst that fans who are now in their 30s – with jobs, spouses, children and problems – can relate to. “I don’t want to stay, time to go / I don’t want to be in this home,” Natalie Appleton sings with deadpan delivery on the song’s bridge. It’s a sad moment, but the Saints have never sounded so good.
The rest of the album plays out a truly genuine affair, largely due to Shaznay handling the bulk of writing duties alongside a consistent mix of production courtesy of Hutch (Kylie Minogue), Fred Ball, (Little Mix, Zara Larsson) The Invisible Men (Charli XCX, Iggy Azalea) and longtime collaborator, K-Gee.
The album’s two major standouts come with “One Woman Man” – a rousing, percussion heavy kiss-off lead by Shaznay with a bridge that she sings into the heavens – and “Puppet on a String,” a minimal reggae-lite earworm. There is the questionable Rihanna-esque “Ratchet Behavior,” which plays out like a toilet squabble recap in OK! Magazine, but even there, the seamless bass wobble transition to the album’s title track makes it worth it. As “Ratchet Behavior” gets put in time out, “Red Flag” gloriously erupts to toast another no good man. “You shoulda come with a warning – red flag!” the girls chant to a choir of handclaps.
The women of All Saints never completely oversaturated the pop culture consciousness in the last 20 years, which allows Red Flag to tell a story without being enshrouded in decades of drama. It’s a glimpse at a reality we didn’t watch on TV, but still just as salacious. Consider it the girls’ Real House Saints of London...an enigma wrapped in an army jacket.
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