Whilst most girl bands in the late ’90s were in the shadow of the Spice Girls, All Saints held firm to their own musical identity, favouring sleek RnB influences over the instant gratification posturing of their power-pop competition. While both groups sometimes overlapped in style, the marketing and image of each was defiantly different. That the Saints favoured a more sultry sound is likely why they have arguably more seamlessly continued where they left off.
Red Flag (), their first album in ten years, is not only a return to form, but a bold stroke forward. Stitching together pop, RnB, tribal, adult contemporary and gospel, it all works as if they had never been away. The common thread is the blend of their distinctive, streetwise but unjaded voices.
Album opener and first single “One Strike” emerges from the shadows with brooding synths, clearing the air beautifully with a sombre, yet lethally effective, chorus. The soothing harmony that ignites the chorus is a delicious heartache remedy. When the girls softly chant as Natalie Appleton poignantly croons “broken promises, time to leave. I had everything that you needed”, there’s a palpable chemistry that will surely strike a chord. Such an intimate sense of connection is not surprising given that the inspiration for the group’s main songwriter Shaznay Lewis was a phone call with fellow member Nicole Appleton on the subject of her divorce from Oasis singer Liam Gallagher.
Orchestral and deceptively groovy, the heavenly chorus in “One Woman Man” is girl band perfection. Between swooping choruses, we’re treated to judicious turns from Lewis and Mel Blatt, with the former’s particularly gritty middle eight climaxing with the neo-camp delivery of “didn’t she hear me say? I ain’t going nowhere” sung at her vocal bursting point. Pushed to the top of the album for good reason, if there were any justice it would also be pushed to the top of the charts.
Always at ease with a funky RnB soundscape, “Make U Love Me” recalls Luscious Jackson in Fever In Fever Out, and sprinkles their discerning knack for a haunting pop hook or two on top. A subdued, guitar-laden track, it is a strangely exotic sound, with lyrics almost sweet enough to disguise the threat. With a twang of country blues, “Summer Rain” equally stretches both the group’s genre-shifting and vocal range. One of the album’s most obvious flourishes of personal reflection, Lewis’ breathless vocal is a gutsy approach that works wonders alongside the unexpected musical direction.
“Who Hurt Who” is half Janet Jackson, half The Carpenters). Natalie issues the most exquisitely delivered vocal of her career. Nothing short of ravishing, her dulcet tones combine with the gorgeous arrangement to transform a relatively simple song into something hauntingly artful.
Exploiting a brighter pop sound, “Puppet on a String” is positively dripping with energy, hanging off a Caribbean current of electronica and faint splashes of house music. Expanding their repertoire to reggae and dancehall is nothing new for the group, and here the more boisterous “Ratchet Behaviour” offers a similar, if heavier, dosage of it. The elastic rhythms and self-conscious sass may prove to be an acquired taste for some, but arguably the move pays off on repeated plays when its melody works its way under the skin. Off the cuff, outlandish, thumping, jarring, bitchy and faintly embarrassing, it is surely destined to become a fan favourite for a variety of reasons.
Elsewhere, the stylishly hooky “Red Flag” and “Tribal” are both tempered with worldly atmospherics and unexpectedly lo-fi dance beats. The album’s biggest strength is their vocal vigor, making these songs sound incredibly liberated. As on “Pieces”, they often sound on the verge of simply sighing along to the dreamy backdrops. Sometimes singing softly on top of lustrous and breezy beats is all it takes.
If in their hey day All Saints could often be accused of focusing more on groove and texture than on fully-fledged, memorable pop songs, Red Flag not only retains their elegant, laid-back aesthetic, but shapes their sound into something more multi-layered and introspective. It pulsates with a sense of renewed thirst and discovery.
Red Flag is available now from Amazon and through streaming services.
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