All Saints’ ‘Testament’ is proof they’re here to stay

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Stream on Spotify

Score: 10/10

Add to library: The whole damn thing

Maybe it was the ten-year gap between albums. Maybe it was the emotional gravitas Nicole Appleton’s tabloid-devoured divorce lent the songs. For whatever reason, 2016’s Red Flag gave All Saints the reboot they deserved. Testament isn’t blessed with a dramatic backstory, making its categorical brilliance all the more impressive.

This is simply All Saints at their creative peak. Unofficial fifth member K-Gee is back as producer, and ‘Pure Shores’/ ‘Black Coffee’ maestro William Orbit brings two tracks. Swirling electronica, 80s soul-pop, and tripped-out garage are among the many genres tested out, but they’re bound by meticulous percussion, a heavy low-end, and impeccable harmonies.

It helps that Shaznay Lewis is one of Britain’s most underrated pop songwriters. Love is the sole theme, and she paints it in all its forms. ‘Love Lasts Forever’ comforts a child nearing adulthood; ‘Three Four’ is a smutty sex romp; and ‘Don’t Look Over Your Shoulder’ escorts a freshly-dumped ex out of the house. 

The women relive their Orbit-helmed glory years on the transcendent ‘After All’. But ‘Testament In Motion’ points to an exciting future for both band and producer, with blissful balladry dissolving seamlessly into hip-winding electroclash.

Isolated from Red Flag’s PR opportunities, Testament makes All Saints’ raw talent impossible to ignore. In 2018, their boundary-pushing Britpop is even more audacious than it was in the 90s. Who among their peers can claim the same?

 

Years & Years refuse to obscure queerness on ‘Palo Santo’

Palo-Santo-artwork.pngStream on Spotify

Score: 8/10

Add to library: ‘All For You’, ‘Palo Santo’, ‘Up In Flames’

Years & Years introduced their second album with two uninteresting singles and a preposterous concept.

So it’s a relief that Palo Santo is a solid collection of tropical electropop, dripping with sweat, tears and charisma from frontman Olly Alexander.

The title refers to a pansexual metropolis that sprung from Alexander’s imagination, a place where androids rule, and humans are plucked from the streets to writhe around on a stage, using their flesh to provoke genuine emotion in an audience of automatons.

The accompanying short film is the kind of thing a person dreams up after eating a block of cheese and watching Blade Runner. It’s a lofty gimmick, but at least it’s one that articulates the record’s inherent queerness rather than obscures it.

What Palo Santo does successfully is depict the life of a socially mobile, twenty-something gay man in 2018. Across atmospheric ballads and glow-in-the-dark dance tracks, hookups (‘Rendezvous’), heartbreak (‘All For You’) and internalised homophobia (‘Preacher’) are each captured in golden melodies.

Like 2014’s Communion, images of Catholic flagellation appear as thinly-veiled metaphors for anal sex. When written to bouncy, playlistable beats – ‘Hallelujah’, ‘Preacher’ – they make for welcome additions to the band’s canon. First single ‘Sanctify’ exhausts the premise with a plodding tempo that had me checking my watch, but as the opener it’s inoffensive. 

Alexander brings an unapologetically queer perspective that deserves to be heard loud-and-clear. Trailblazing? Absolutely not. But his visibility shouldn’t be taken for granted in the current political climate.

Forget the sci-fi window dressing – by bucking heteronormativity, Palo Santo is a futuristic work in its own right.

Charli XCX’s “Number 1 Angel” mixtape – “Trashy, but never throwaway”

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Click here to listen to Number 1 Angel 

In another life, Charli XCX is the sixth Spice Girl. Hits like “I Love It” and “Fancy” prove her knack for bolshy ear candy, but on her new mixtape, Charli carries the torch for girl power into pop’s underbelly, and she wants you to follow.

A stopgap between 2016’s Vroom Vroom EP and a third LP due later this year, Number 1 Angel continues Charli’s work with electro avant gardists PC Music. The London label hybridise squeaky-clean IDM and 90s eurodance silliness, sharing serious chemistry with the singer’s stereo-booming hooks.

The music is almost rebellious for its glitchy hyperpop, oft-filtered vocals, and all-female features, but there are some piquant crossovers.

“3AM (Pull Up)” is cheerleader dancehall with a heartbroken twist, and prime single material. A guesting bolsters the mixtape’s feminist credentials with an affirming middle-8, prompting the song’s glorious you-go-girl attitude to snowball in the final chorus: “It’s 3AM and you are calling / Go fuck yourself, don’t say you’re sorry!”.

“Emotional” harks back to “Boom Clap” with a big, windswept topline – although producer A. G. Cook does add chop suey backing vocals in the name of experimentation.

Charli’s cohorts are a diverse lot. Up-and-comers Starrah and RAYE bring feel-good aspiration to the stonking future bass of “Dreamer”, while MySpace relic Uffie spits a bouncy MIA impression over plastic-reggae joint “Baby Girl”. CupcakKe’s ribald raps ensure “Lipgloss” is an appropriately lip-smacking tribute to cunnilingus.

The most vital union has undoubtedly been between Charli and PC Music, yet she’s inclusive, even stuttering “Do you wanna roll with me?” during one ecstatic, Aqua-on-crack assault. Across Number 1 Angel’s 35 minutes, Charli emerges as an auteur and ultimate gal pal – and really, no true 90s bitch would turn her down.

9.5/10

Ed Sheeran – Divide: “Listless balladry and boundless opportunism”

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If only Ed Sheeran could produce an album that split opinion. Despite commercial success being a given for the Suffolk-raised singer’s third LP, the erroneously-titled Divide is about as edgy as a sausage roll.

The pandering doesn’t even end with a base-covering single campaign that made a smart play for Radio 1 (catchy “Cheap Thrills” knock-off “Shape of You”) and 2 (“Castle On The Hill”). Divide isn’t afraid to exploit cultural generalisations in order to connect.

Opener “Eraser” is a self-pitying take on drinking like a twenty-something. Here and elsewhere, Ed romanticises his humility. He’s a Grammy-winning everyman “without a nine-to-five job or a uni degree”, singing to millions in “the same old jeans”. It’s pure department store fodder, so perhaps a fan will pick him up a pair.

Even worse is “Galway Girl”, combining flavourless Irish trad and noughties boyband melodies to soundtrack a one night stand with a fiery Celtic waif. Any pop chorus beginning with “She played the fiddle in an Irish band” should by right lead to a filthy couplet about handjobs, but Ed shows no ambition beyond reaping marketing royalties from Ireland’s tourism board.

Banality is occasionally swapped for bitterness, as on the unlikely highlight “New Man”. Underneath the slick acoustic-pop is a mean-spirited sketch of an ex’s metrosexual lover, right down to his plucked eyebrows and bleached arsehole. Ed’s observations border on bigotry, but hey, at least it’s interesting, right?

A wet mass of listless balladry and boundless opportunism, Divide shirks any duty to say something new, and will no doubt achieve homeric sales throughout the year. When Britain’s biggest popstar sings “Love can change the world, but what do I know?”, the modesty is hard to stomach. Ed Sheeran knows exactly what he’s doing.

03/10

[Music] Thoughts on… M.O – Not In Love

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Long before last year’s “Who Do You Think Of?” gave them a Top 20 hit, UK girl group M.O have been adamant about two things: that existing alongside Danish singer isn’t confusing for casual listeners, and that throwbacks to late 90’s/early 00’s R&B are in vogue.

Follow-up “Not In Love” has a dancehall flavour, and could’ve been an awkward single choice for the winter season. Wisely, clanking keys, skittering drum machines, and an ear-splitting chorus offset the warmth – so while the song is still danceable, it’s more of a vocal showcase than a toe-tapper.

Admittedly, this isn’t an excellent example of M.O’s angelic harmonies, and Nadine’s Melodyned hook occasionally clashes with the carefree arrangement. Although “Not In Love” and its lamé-hued video don’t do anything new, these girls still sing with a vigour that’s worthy of their influences.

The 30 best pop songs of 2016 (part two)

  1. Solange – Cranes in the Sky

While sadness has no quick-fix, “Cranes in the Sky” prescribes distractions aplenty. Some are vague (“I tried to run it away”), others draw on Solange’s experiences as a black woman in America (“I tried to fix it with my hair”). Both waste time evading a root cause, but a stark backdrop of wooden drums, strings and bass encourages self-reflection.

  1. A Tribe Called Quest – We The People….

Just like Trump’s “deplorables” and Clinton’s “Nasty Women” embraced disparaging monikers, “We The People….” parodies enemies of the far-right. Sirens rage and industrial beats grind as Q-Tip and the late Phife seek to galvanise blacks, Mexicans, the poor, muslims, and gays – who together form the unwelcome “bad folks”.

  1. All Saints – One Strike

Inspired by a phone call between Shaznay Lewis and Nicole Appleton as the latter’s began marriage to crumble, “One Strike” celebrates rational thinking in a spiralling situation. Buzzy synths recall All Saints’ ebullient classic “Pure Shores”, but Lewis’ songwriting occasionally smarts in its depiction of a relationship blanched by deceit.

  1. Mykki Blanco – Loner (feat. Jean Deaux)

Performance artist-turned-alt-hip-hop darling Mykki Blanco packs copious gender speech tropes into any given song. As “Loner” demonstrates over cold aqueous synths, this isn’t a mere male-female dichotomy – it’s a constellation of personalities attempting to reckon with love, and loneliness is an all-too common thread.

  1. Radiohead – Burn the Witch

For their first lead single in five years, Radiohead mischievously keep up the suspense. On “Burn the Witch”, Thom Yorke’s head voice wafts unintelligibly across percussive strings and a groaning synth. The climatic shock never comes, but nods to Britain’s unravelling foreign relations (“Loose talk around tables / abandon all reason”) evoke an insidious danger.

  1. Childish Gambino – Redbone

Set in a world of velvety funk riddled with boogiemen, zombies and other inhuman threats, Childish Gambino’s latest LP has a lot to say about self-preservation. Dwell on the Prince-pilfering textures and you miss the bigger picture – “Redbone” is a distinctly millennial rallying cry. Basing his chorus around a zeitgeist-ish bid to “stay woke”, Glover taps into the unease felt by any young liberal witnessing a very real world in turmoil.

  1. Rihanna – Love on the Brain

There’s a fine line between escapism and cynicism. Musically, “Love on the Brain” is more surreal than soulful – a wounded 60s prom ballad bleeding Twin Peaks-esque Americana. Occasional anachronisms (“It beats me black and blue, but it fucks me so good”) should theoretically anchor the fantasy, but Rihanna’s career-best vocals are equally disorientating. Careening from an uncharacteristically strong soprano to expressive, raspy bleats, this is a song the ever-improving singer has been waiting 11 years to record: the kind of hit anyone and everyone can get lost in.

  1. Katy B x Chris Lorenzo – I Wanna Be

Honey, Katy B’s mixtape-cum-third LP, was an unambitious project, and this future dance classic deserved more. Chris Lorenzo’s steely and expensive trance beats render “I Wanna Be” as sensual and bracing as an MDMA peak, while lyrics like “I wanna tell you but anxiety’s a bitch, babe” see Katy continue to give pop a welcome human touch.

  1. Skepta – Man

During this year’s Mercury Music Prize ceremony, Jarvis Cocker teased that the battle had come down to “two black stars” – referring, of course, to the late David Bowie and Tottenham-born grime MC Skepta. Ultimately swallowed up by Skepta’s win, this reductive pun sits awkwardly alongside “Man”, a timely exploration of racial relations.

Horror-movie guitar jerks and slugging rhymes imply an anger towards entitled middle-class hangers-on, but it’s closer to frustration. Why else is an ersatz fan asking “Can I get a pic for the ‘gram?” lambasted in the topline? The request captures a presumed familiarity bordering on festishisation, and in response, their idol retreats to what feels genuine: “I only socialise with the crew and the gang.

  1. Beyoncé – Formation

Forget the video, the Super Bowl performance, and the “Anti-police” clusterfuck that followed: as a song, “Formation” is among Beyoncé’s very best. Those cartoonish banjo plucks are the sound of change boinging through the air, not just in the singer’s approach to her art, but for the world at large.

There is no proto-“Formation” in Beyoncé’s canon. Mike Will Made It tames the noisy trap of “7/11” into something more tactile, but there’s a lot to get hold of. Synths twinkle menacingly and what sounds like a deflating bagpipe is looped ad nauseum, acting as burly backup to Beyoncé’s constant iterations of pride (“I slay, I slay, all day”).  

The pro-black theme marks a bold advancement of Beyoncé’s influence, and politics can’t help but permeate the meme-chasing hooks. Every time a listener passively mouths “I got hot sauce in my bag” – the hot sauce in question being a baseball bat Beyoncé later wields in the “Hold Up” clip – it’s an often subconscious showing of solidarity for a black woman’s right and ability to carry power.

‘Empowering’ is too played-out a word to describe “Formation”. This isn’t a song about how you good look without makeup, or how you shouldn’t hate your curvy figure, because some men might dig it. Beyoncé is now above such banal commonalities. When she yells “Show me you have some co-ordination!” at the track’s end, she practically acknowledges her godlike status, begging to the women of the world to match her ambition and most importantly, stand up for one another.

You only have to look at her country’s president-elect to see how much work we all – including our superstar allies – have left to do, but “Formation” will continue to be a touchstone for those attempting to pick up the pieces and move on from 2016. RG