The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Wednesday, October 09, 2002
ALL SAINTS: GETTING OFF ON THE CONFLICT?

That's all you can think of when listening to their All Hits collection. Oh, of course there was so much more punctum in Melanie Blatt's earlobe than the entire body weight of the Spice Girls, but it's the tensions which draw you back to their music now; the fact that the sleeve design for this compilation was clearly thrown together in about 90 seconds, the fact that Blatt/Lewis and Appleton/Appleton are very pointedly photographed in two separate pairs, the unabashed misery which oozed through the latter's assumed glee on last night's Frank Skinner Show, the knowledge that they probably have shot their bolt. Liam Gallagher off with a Nicole lookalike? How more purposely demeaning can you get?

The fact is, of course, that the Appletons were taken on as hired hands, never considered as anything more, hardly ever given a lead vocal. Blatt and Lewis as a duo All Saints were signed to ZTT originally, and when they doubled in size and moved to London Records, it is significant that yet again Cameron McVey was involved - surely the lynchpin of all post-Madonna girl pop, from Neneh Cherry onwards?

Their first single, "I Know Where It's At" is the considered, long-shot Robert Altman to "Wannabe"'s hyperactive Scorsese. Yes, they want to have a good time, but they do not want to leave the ground either; it's all a "good-time" live band approach, which of course is in itself a construct (the Naturals, the Anti-Corporate Spices), but simultaneously undermined by Lewis' 78 rpm rap. But this was just a warm up for their extraordinarily bleak succession of singles to follow.

"Never Ever" is six minutes of punctum. The almost reluctant Shangri-Las spoken word opening, as if whichever Appleton it is was a nine-year-old made to read a poem at an end-of-term school concert. The delivery is hesitant, strangely humble, almost drained of any real feeling or passion. I was retrospectively reminded of the Langley Schools Music Project. Then carnality sneaks into the song as Lewis and Blatt begin to trade verses. Their "indecision" is far more decided; they need something physical and see the argument with the Other as merely a routine obstacle to overcome so that they can indulge. The alternations between "A to Zee" and "A to Z" depending on rhyming convenience; the inordinately sexual way in which the words "complications" and "hesitations" are played off half a beat behind the rhythm, the palpably liquid flow of the chorus - redoubled by their lovely Woody Allen-style "shrugging the shoulders in combat trousers" dance routine when performing it on TV. It gradually works itself up into some sort of a catharsis, and at fadeout makes the transition into undisguised desire, over the fractured D'Angelo guitar and beats: "You can tell me to my face..." They can hardly wait.

A strange double A-side of cover versions followed: "Lady Marmalade" (better, because more contained and less overdone, than the all-star Moulin Rouge version) and "Under The Bridge" produced by Nellee Hooper, which I am inclined to think is infinitely more disturbing than the Peppers' original. Here there is no easy children's choir cathartic climax, merely a woozy uncertainty; the Red Hot guitar intro sample wanders in and out of view, like the Royal Festival Hall observed across the river with bleary, nocturnal, stoned eyes; the Mu-Ziq-style vibes motif; the complete disregard for the original song's chord sequence. This is despair which is not easily resolvable, if at all.

"Bootie Call" and "All Hooked Up" constitute a mirrored pair of songs pretending to welcome, yet ulitmately rejecting, the assumed Other. The former calls, as Neneh Cherry declared a decade previously, "I'll give you love baby, not romance," except here it's sex above even love. Don't exceed the boundaries which I have set for you, lad, and we'll get on fine. We will please you in your confinement. The answering machine ending; the machine without even a ghost in it. On "All Hooked Up," a precursor of sorts to the Sugababes' "Round Round," you transgressed my boundaries and so you're not getting me in any way, sucker! Radical stuff.

In "Pure Shores" and "Black Coffee" they float to the Other's side. Thanks presumably to William Orbit, there is now an airiness to their work but a strange, suspended sort of air, as if they have moved to the next world; an ethereality just outside our grasp. "Pure Shores" with its "I'm calling you" refrain, may well be the answer record to Joy Division's "Dead Souls" (don't forget that New Order were also on The Beach's soundtrack). And as for the extraordinary "Black Coffee" - a picture of idyllic love, idyllic routines, perfection which still seems so fragile as if it will topple over at any second. Hear the alternations between the heavenly chorus and the ominous minor chords/bassline of the verses. The pause in the middle as they decide whether to opt for life or death. The shattering conclusion which should be heard while reading the first chapter of Jim Crace's Being Dead.

The compilation ends with two "hidden" tracks: "I Feel You" and "Dreams." Both remain distended and ethereal; the first celebrates the Other ending the singer's loneliness; the second suggests that it might all be illusory. Was there really anywhere left for All Saints to go? The album feels "cut off" in a way; a record of unfulfilled lives.


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