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Girl groups, much the same as boy bands, attain and survive their fame, and their infamy, primarily through maintained single sales. Though the successful ones manage this, cohesive and filler-free albums are fewer and further between within the genre.
There are exceptions, of course. Destiny’s Child’s second record The Writing’s on the Wall and Girls Aloud’s 2005 Chemistry album in particular prove that it’s not impossible (along with production team Xenomania, Girls Aloud probably perfected the art of consistently strong albums more than any other boy or girl band of the last decade).
And so enter All Saints, back with their fourth album (the last being released 10 years ago) – a group who have yet to buck this trend. Their best singles are utterly brilliant and seemingly ageless, have grace, and sound exactly like All Saints.
You could never, and neither would they want you to, confuse them for the Spice Girls or any other girl group.
More than anything else, the most startling thing about Red Flag is just how much it still sounds like All Saints.
Nicole and Natalie Appleton, Melanie Blatt and Shaznay Lewis’ eponymous debut album was released in 1997, yet a new song like ‘One Woman Man’ would not only fit perfectly on it but would have been released as one of its many successful singles. ‘One Woman Man’ may not sell as well in 2016 but then the music industry’s changed beyond recognition in the last five years alone and persuading people to pay for music in any format has become harder than ever before.
The first single from Red Flag, ‘One Strike’, is even better than ‘One Woman Man’. The group have a great knack for mood, which is usually sullen and speckled with storm clouds, and along with this ‘One Strike’ also showcases Lewis’ rare ability for divine middle eights and melodic purity.
The remainder of the album’s first half is very much a mixed bag. Amongst the better moments are ‘Puppet on a String’, the record’s most contemporary-sounding pop song, and the lovely ‘Who Hurt Who’ – a riff on classic Janet Jackson piano-based balladry.
As Red Flag progresses, the musical direction takes an unexpectedly experimental and conceptual turn. The back end of another strong ballad, ‘Fear’, introduces gently thrumming drums which lead into the disappointingly tame ‘Ratchet Behaviour’, which segues into the title track.
‘Red Flag’, the song, opens again on these drums which are louder now and more insistent. Echoing handclaps flit from speaker to speaker underlined by an ominous bass line – and that’s it. The women’s vocals are suspended within this soundscape and sound invincible and united. It’s marvellous.
The appropriately named ‘Tribal’ takes this sound one step further, built around the repeated slogan ‘one love’. It has a trippy, dub-like ambience set against more defined synth parts.
As long-time collaborator K Gee is confirmed as producer on all of the later songs on the album, one can rule out the involvement of William Orbit – the man responsible for two of All Saints’ most shimmering and nocturnal songs, the ethereal ‘Pure Shores‘ and the excellent, multi-structured ‘Black Coffee‘. But these songs so resemble Orbit’s production style, that it’s hard to believe.
Red Flag is without a doubt a flawed record but the group have admirably refused to comprise on the fundamentals, and best parts, of their musical identity. It’s amazing at this point just how good some of All Saints’ new songs actually are, and let’s enjoy that for all it’s worth.