PERMANENT RECORDS: I'VE GOT SOMETHING I CAN CALL MINE
Permanent Records is a year-long project. Each Friday (or thereabouts), I will post a new entry about one specific album, chosen due to its significance to myself as a fan. Though the list is numbered, a particular record's placement should not be considered a ranking. There will be 52 albums in all.
07. ALL SAINTS - SAINTS AND SINNERS (2000)
Personnel: Shaznay Lewis, Melanie Blatt, Nicole Appleton, Natalie Appleton
Producer: William Orbit, Karl (K-Gee) Gordon, Jonny Douglas, Stuart Zender / Label: London
I have no problem admitting I was a Spice Girls fan. I enjoyed their slick pop songs on equal measure with how much I enjoyed the marketing presentation. They were a great event, tailor made for the mid-90s pop scene and the high watermark for what the acts that followed would emulate, solo or otherwise. Part of their trick was the branding was so up front, so obvious, it no longer felt like branding. It was so fake it felt real again. Authenticity need not apply.
When All Saints emerged in 1997, the Spice Girls were at their pinnacle. That was the year of the second album, the movie, and total domination. Some dismissed All Saints as merely an attempt to capitalize on the success of Spice, but the quartet quickly did away with such charges. The proof was in the music, and in particular, their masterpiece, "Never Ever," an updated take on the classic Motown girl group sound, complete with spoken intro. There was a plaintive honesty in the delivery that the Spice Girls weren't capable of, and by all indications, the four girls were exactly as they presented themselves. They were just as conflicting in personality as the Spices, but Shaznay Lewis, Melanie Blatt, and the Appleton sisters, Nicole and Natalie, all looked like they were being who they were before joining the band without having to stick personality tags to their chest. And for as different as they looked to one another (Shaznay was pierced and black; the Appletons were blonde and posh; Melanie brunette, full lips, tattoos), they felt like more of a gang, like they all went out and partied together. Really, the debuts of both bands seemed backwards. All Saints came off as the real girls who got their musical chops in working class homes, hearkening back to the inner city girls who formed the Ronnettes and the Shangri-las; Spice Girls now looked more like a band the record company would form to try to capitalize on the success of the All Saints, a complete 180 on the original misperception.
To call the first All Saints album spotty would be fair. Despite the presence of the "Never Ever," there was the misguided Red Hot Chili Peppers cover, "Under the Bridge" (though, let's be honest, it's not nearly as execrable as the original), and the embarrassingly crass modern r&b "Booty Call" to keep All Saints from being perfect. The frankness of the latter surfaces again on Saints & Sinners. The song "All Hooked Up" leaves nothing to the imagination. The main line of the chorus is "I know you want a piece of my ass." It works, though, maybe because it comes from a much stronger r&b tradition--the dismissal of the disrespecting man--whereas "Booty Call" was too close to the R.Kelly school of bump 'n' grind. It was written by Shaznay and producer K-Gee, and they mix the old themes with a new feel, pushing the hiphop in comfortably with the four-girl harmonies.
Saints & Sinners is very much a producer's record. The choice of who to put behind the desk for each track goes a long way in the girls realizing their vision for the songs. Shaznay and K-Gee collaborate more than once, and "All Hooked Up" is only a small indication of what they can do together. "Distance" is a smooth ballad of romantic longing, while "Ready , Willing & Able" captures a then au-currant two-step beat for a steamy slow dance around desire.
The true star turn production-wise has to come from William Orbit, who around this time was riding high from his work with Madonna on Ray of Light and Blur on 13. He produced the first two singles, "Pure Shores" and "Black Coffee." In those songs, he and the Saints found a sound to rival even that of "Never Ever."
"Pure Shores" began life as part of the soundtrack to the film The Beach, and so it takes its water imagery from that. Yet, from these beginnings comes something truly inspiring, wholly original. Working with a soft electronic backdrop, Orbit invokes the sensation of water, of being adrift in the ocean and looking to the skies, seeing the stars. It's propulsive melody moves like a boat, the sound splitting the airwaves. The presence of "Pure Shores" on radio playlist must have felt like a rescue from an otherwise desolate shipwreck. The exultant sound is well met by the girls, who sing the romantic chorus in their trademark four-part harmony. "Pure Shores" is a song of total belief--in the self, in the heart, in the union that we are now rushing to, that waits for us on the distant beach.
The follow-up, "Black Coffee," is a perfect realization of the alternating personalities that made the All Saints so special. The verses have a minimal techno backdrop, Shaznay's more nasally vocals listing some of the minor details of the day, the things that remind us of a lover even when he is gone. These lines slip effortlessly into the chorus and, once again, the harmonizing, the lyrics morphing to a lovely apology for the moods that could have sent that lover packing and a reaffirmation that she wants the relationship to last. Orbit ups his ambient electronics, making the choruses timeless where the verses are immediate. Just as the technique created a sensation of swimming through the ocean at night on "Pure Shores," on "Black Coffee" it's the cosmic rush of emotion, of being embraced by true love. It's the wake up call for your heart, the caffeine shot of bliss.
Elsewhere, Orbit gives a smooth polish to "Dreams," a song about the necessity of moving on in the midst of heartbreak that stretches back to the girl group sound that defined "Never Ever." Again, there is a dichotomy at work here, a duality of emotion. Perhaps the album title is more descriptive than it might have gotten credit for: Saints & Sinners. In "Black Coffee," the verses are the wishes of the saintly, the choruses a confession of the sinful. In "Dreams," it's both sadness and defiance:
"Dreams are dreams,
Will alas come true
Skies are clear, leaving me bright and blue
I will raise my glass to my heart and say,
'Here's to tomorrow, not yesterday'"
The words carry various meanings. "Dreams are dreams" can be interpreted as saying they are unreal and will so, or if line 1 is connected to line 2, then there is no cynicism at all. Dreams can be reached. Only, that word "alas," suggests resignation, that these dreams might not be what you wished for. Even that "blue" sky may not be a peaceful signifier, it could be a sign of depression lingering.
That kind of alternating mood is also present on the K-Gee produced title track. "Fast? Slow? / Stop? Go?" they ask, the music following their request, rising and falling with their singing. There is a grimy, thumping beat followed by more natural sounding guitars and scattered pauses and breakdowns, insuring the listener is never entirely sure what he or she is going to get next. And that's intentional: "I aint foolin' around/ Things come to test you,/ I'm about to let you/ Make you have a good time,/ Make you lose your mind." Is she letting me or is she forcing me? If I pass this test, will I know the answer to the query if I am a sinner or a saint?
The final song produced by William Orbit is "Surrender." Once again co-written by Shaznay, who had a hand in the composition of 3/4 of Saints & Sinners, it's the song Destiny's Child spent their last album failing to write. In the song, Shaznay gives herself over completely to a lover, but it never manages to feel like she is debasing herself or being any less than who she is. She trusts this man enough to let her guard down because, from the sound of things, he's willing to accept her on her own terms--unlike, say, the girl depowering of DC's humiliating "Cater 2 U." The line "Like a flower, you unfold" isn't subtle in its imagery, but it's the phrase "Surrender" turns on. The man isn't only taking, he's giving.
Between K-Gee's hiphop inflected tracks and Orbit's more dreamy, emotional tunes, Jonny Douglas works with All Saints to bring out their party side. Two of the raise-the-roof tracks were co-written by Douglas and Melanie Blatt, "Whoopin' Over You" and "Ha Ha." Both songs are about a girl getting hers, in the first luring the man across the dancefloor, in the second warning him to watch his step. Both have bounce to them, all attitude and strength. On the Shaznay penned "Love is Love," Douglas brings a big '80s sound to the chorus, while maintaining a heavy beat throughout. His are the ones you would bump over your car stereo.
It would be unfair to give those producers too much credit for the shape of the tracks, however. As I said, I think the real talent here is matching the songs to the right pair of hands, finding the collaborators who could bring out what they wanted. All Saints was never a band that was being tailored or orchestrated by anyone else. This is what made them all the more potent as a girl group. The listener always got the sense that the quartet was talking to them straight, they catered to no one.
Thus, it's a little sad that they split up so early. They should have been more important in the international pop landscape. They proved that you could be successful without bowing to the game and stretch your sound without being all over the map. Other pop artists working with four producers would have four different EPs slapped together as one LP. Not All Saints, they got a complete work from those sessions.
The girls all tried different solo careers, but none of them really got off the ground. Thankfully, rather than fade away, they have gotten back together this year and just released a new album, Studio 1. It picks up exactly where Saints & Sinners off, but with a very light brushing of a more current reggaeton influence. First single "Rock Steady" is awesome, but there is nothing on the record to rival a "Black Coffee" or "Pure Shores," so it's doubtful that they will finally achieve the success they deserve, but it's nice to have them emerge to show what made Lilly Allen what she is today and what Fergie and Nelly Furtado wish they could be.
Reminder: As always, this post is full of links to Amazon. Click on any one of them when shopping, and Amazon will shave a few pennies off their take to give to me. So, if my reviews make you all hot and bothered and you just have to own one of the things I'm talking about, use my link and contribute to buying me more stuff to review. (Those reading a Live Journal feed will likely have to click to the actual blog page first before heading over to Amazon, though.) Either way, thanks for reading.
Current Soundtrack: All Saints, Studio 1
Current Mood: determined
[to leave comments, click on the time-stamp below, then scroll down on the new page] – All text (c) 2006 Jamie S. Rich