Originally published on So So Gay on 16 October 2012.
Pop groups – male, female or mixed – are always prone to having transient careers. When it’s not a runaway talent breaking away like a force of nature (such as Beyoncé from Destiny’s Child) or fashions simply moving on, their demise is usually down to strained relations. This was the case for British girl group, All Saints.
In 2000, the four-piece released their second album, Saints & Sinners. While it didn’t quite match the sales of their eponymous début, it was their only number one album, spawning three singles, two hitting the top spot (‘Pure Shores‘ and ‘Black Coffee‘) and the third managing a respectable number 7 (‘All Hooked Up‘). Sadly, due to relations turning sour and a divide appearing between the group’s two factions (founding members and old friends, Shaznay Lewis and Melanie Blatt on one side, the Appleton sisters, Nicole and Natalie, on the other), the girls called it quits, stopping their successful career in its tracks at the start of 2001.
Five years would pass before the girls managed to patch up their differences, reuniting for their third – though hopefully not their last – album, Studio 1. Whether intentional or not, their reunion hit at the same time as their major competition from first time around: the international phenomenon that is the Spice Girls. Ultimately, neither group successfully managed a comeback, though All Saints at least made a more respectable effort. The Spice Girls released the god-awful dross that was ‘Headlines (Friendship Never Ends)‘ – a forgettable track with an absolutely terrible title – as a means to flog their back catalogue, in the form of a greatest hits collection. All Saints, by comparison, released an entire album of new material which is arguably their best work to date.
The album marked a change in direction for the All Saints sound, taking greater influence from reggae and ska music, yet still with its feet grounded in street-wise pop. In many ways, Studio 1 is sonically closer to and reminiscent of Shaznay’s brilliant solo album, Open, than it is to Saints & Sinners. This is perhaps unsurprising when you realise that the lion’s share of the album’s writing credits go to Lewis.
Lead single ‘Rock Steady’, was written by Shaznay Lewis and Greg Kurstin – the main collaborator on Lily Allen’s sophomore album, It’s Not Me, It’s You. It was the first track the pair wrote together, with Lewis later stating that it was written about the four of them reuniting. The song is fresh and yet somehow retro, with an infectious chorus that quite rightly earned them a number three chart position. The accompanying video, filmed entirely in black and white, saw the girls holding up a bank with an air of kinkiness, as they use whips rather than guns as their weapon of choice.
Even though ‘Rock Steady’ seemed to herald a successful return for the girls, for some reason it didn’t translate into album sales when Studio 1 was released four days later – it débuted at number 40 on the album chart. To outline the marked difference in success, Saints & Sinners went on to sell in excess of 600,000 units, whereas Studio 1 has only achieved a tenth of that, shifting a mere 60,000 units. Understandably, their label, Parlophone Records, was concerned, though perhaps they ought to have a had a little more faith in the girls. As a result of the poor sales of Studio 1, combined with disagreements with the group, Parlophone cancelled a physical release of their second single, ‘Chick Fit’, leaving digital downloads as the only source for sales. Consequently, the single only charted in Slovakia of all places, peaking at a lowly 26, and was the final nail in the All Saints coffin.
Aside from relegating the girls back to obscurity, it was a travesty that ‘Chick Fit’ didn’t get a proper release, as it’s certainly a highlight from the album. Written by Lewis and album producer, Rick Nowles, it is a truly superb song, lyrically charting the effect of being helplessly besotted with a guy. Constructed from crisp percussion, punchy synths and a rolling bassline, it also contains a middle-8 breakdown that is relentlessly enjoyable to hear: the track strips back to a hi-hat beat followed by the thumping bass as the tight vocal harmonies reappear.
The girls and album may have disappeared after this second single but Studio 1 is stuffed to the gunnels with ska-tinged, pop brilliance. As with their previous efforts, All Saints are equally comfortable on upbeat, dance-inducing numbers as they are on moving and beautiful ballads. Studio 1 contains just the right peppering of ballads to break up the energy of the album without dragging it down, simultaneously allowing them to show off their musical and vocal dexterity.
Third track, ‘On and On’, is one of the few tracks that harks back to their earlier material; written by Lewis during her pregnancy, it is a calm and tranquil moment from the album, outlining the expectant mother’s anticipation and love for her unborn child. With all the girls being mothers, it’s a song that undoubtedly resonates with the whole group.
Co-written by Melanie Blatt, the next song, ‘Scar’, is the most explicitly ska-influenced track, even using a corruption of the genre name as its title. Track five, ‘Not Eazy’, is another album highlight. With its impatient, rat-a-tat-tat rhythms and dreamy vocals from the girls, it bemoans a love interest who is difficult to read and prone to playing games. ‘Hell No’ marks the middle of the album, and is perhaps the only misstep. It may not quite stand up to the high calibre of the rest of Studio 1, but is a solid track, nonetheless.
Opening up the album’s second half is ‘One Me and U’, which Lewis describes as one of her favourites with its Burt Bacharach feel. However, it is the next track, ‘Headlock’, which makes the disappointment of ‘Hell No’ instantly forgotten. Opening with, and driven by, a tumbling piano refrain, if things had been different, it surely would have been a future single, as it’s a joy from start to finish. Taking inspiration from that staple of songwriting, unreliable men, the bridge sung by Shaznay as she indignantly proclaims, ‘No more cryin’ all alone / No more wishin’ you’d come home / No more checkin’ out your calls / I’m free’ is infectious and is the perfect lead into the chorus.
Following on from this triumph of female empowerment is the sultry swagger of ‘Too Nasty’. An adamant rebuffing of a lover who has an implied kinky fetish, but not in the good way. Blatt, who co-wrote the track, stated that in her mind the lyrics were referencing bestiality, which does make you look back at her previous lovers and wonder who in God’s name was the inspiration. Let’s hope it was entirely artistic license.
Entering the final quarter of the album and we reach ‘In It To Win It’, a song that could almost be interpreted as a mantra for the girls’ comeback, reminding them that it may be tough going, but it’ll be worth it. Penultimate track, ‘Flashback’, is another contender for ‘could have been a single’. Co-written by Natalie Appleton, she claims that she was trying to capture her tendency to say things without thinking, leading her to later regret them. It’s arguably the most rocky sounding track from the album with dominant percussion and distorted guitars sitting alongside the horns that appear on much of the album’s ska-flavoured tracks. Full of energy and over too soon, it reveals that Shaznay Lewis isn’t the only All Saint capable of writing a killer track.
This genuinely brilliant and criminally underrated album ends with the glorious ‘Fundamental’, which, according to Lewis (who yet again co-wrote it), is a love song for them and their kids. While the inspiration may sound sappy, making one expect a painfully saccharine ballad, it’s actually a sublime track and the perfect closer to the album. With fairly threadbare lyrics, the slow build of the song eventually finds the girls accompanied by a choir, ending on a wonderfully uplifting vocal crescendo.
By all rights, Studio 1 should have been the album that saw the girls return to the music scene revitalised, resolved and reunited. While the song quality was there, for reasons both known and unknown, it sadly wasn’t to be, leading the girls to once again part ways. Still, who says they won’t one day try again? After all, they do say third time’s the charm…