In a sea of reunions, rebrands and everything in between, it’s getting harder and harder to stand out. We’ve seen every name under the sun pitch together for one last bash at the big time, with varying degrees of success and intentions. In the land of pop we’ve seen supremos such as Take That, the Spice Girls and even East 17 give it all a whirl – and in their hey-day all seemed to personify an element of manufactured pop that gripped a nation. Astride from the clear-cut sensibilities, All Saints were very much the “cool” pop group of the late 90s/early-00s, relating a string of acclaimed tracks that blended hip-hop freshness with a delicate and soulful restrain that made them chart saviours with the likes of ‘Pure Shores’ and ‘Never Ever’ filling a nation of cool kids with a sense of purpose over pop music. Through spectacular break-ups and failed reunions, they’ve been the group that remain as beloved as they are acclaimed, making this latest attempt at a comeback even more vital. Reforming after a brief live return last year, ‘Red Flag’ is the culmination of a decade away from the pop landscape, encapsulating fresh and modern production with their trademark vocal harmonies and slightly tinged tales of the darkest periods of love.
Lead single ‘One Strike’ is as emphatic as it comes, a defiant anthem on the puncturing damages split throughout a relationship, packed with enough context to write a novel around the recent exploits of Nicole Appleton’s previous muse. Unmistakably organic in nature, it sits effortlessly with the recent credible-pop revival of the decade, and a quick reminder as to how potent a force they can stand amidst today’s crop of melody-makers. The sentiment continues with ‘One Woman Man’ another bass-filled take on modern love, echoing the sounds of classic R&B with glitchy breaks and a penchant for almost 1975-esque reverbs and ditches, dripped in string-filled orchestral bliss. ‘Make U Love Me’ could easily sit on either of their classic late 90s records, with ‘Summer Rain’ drifting into a more melodic yet aggravating push that catches chopped up vocals with an ever-morphing electro-pump sound. What made All Saints such an exciting prospect and has enlivened so many with this latest come-back is their close knit reliability with the classic American soul group sound that only grows in reputation as the years pass, typified by En Vogue and TLC’s continued praise. In ‘This Means War’ All Saints come closest in matching that sound, the chorus breathing new life into a “girl-band” scene that has lacked such an emotional punch ever since their first iteration, whilst ‘Who Hurt Who’ is a masterclass in defining pop harmonies. It’s effortless in quality, drenched in the best from both past and present.
Yet what ultimately holds ‘Red Flag’ back from being such an affirming and untouchable comeback is the uncomfortable tendency to incorporate commercial sounds filling the charts of 2016. ‘Puppet On A String’ is an empty cocoon full of auto-tune and forgettable soul, with ‘Fear’ possessing a similar lack of conviction or emotion that hampers and contrasts directly with the record’s earlier highlights. It seems in pursuit of a greater connectivity with a new generation, the band forgo the essential reason why so many praise their sound, typified by the messy dancehall turn of ‘Ratchet Behaviour’. Such a direction only seems to pay off with the album’s title track, a percussive slant on their punchy soul, and ‘Tribal’ soaked in atmospheric electronic gazes and magnifying chants to form a captivating combination.
For a band so inherently associated with defining cool-pop in all it’s contexts and imagery, 2016 is a blessing and an unfortunate blight on All Saints. Attempting to mimic the sort of sounds encapsulated in a Rihanna or Rita Ora finds the Saints out at sea, yet when mirrored and blended well, they’re in a world of their own. ‘Red Flag’ may not be the coherent comeback album of the year, but it does serve as a reminder that there hasn’t been a female group like them since they separated, and their existence in the modern pop landscape remains a vital necessity.
‘Red Flag’ is out now via London Records.
This All Saints article was written by Jamie Muir, a GIGsoup contributor. Edited by Samantha Melrose.