Saints And Sinner: All Saints: All Saints (London)/Natalie Imbruglia: Left Of The Middle (RCA)

OK, they’re pretty, cool and main players in the New Pop Explosion but do they have any songs?

TALK ABOUT striking while the iron’s hot. While sitting (very) pretty with their respective singles in the wee small numbers of the Top 40, the first double-whammy, long-playing fruit of the New Pop Explosion is set to hit the shops in the same week. Exhibit A, the imaginatively titled All Saints, is the slick, hip hop-esque pop offering from (surprise, surprise) All Saints. Exhibit B, Left Of The Middle, comes from ex-Neighbours star, Natalie Imbruglia (apparently, you don’t pronounce the “g”) and deals in your more “traditional” pop. You know, guitars and the like.

The problem both acts face is that being “attractive” while making “good” music is considered something of an impossibility. “Pop” is a dangerous word. It’s a catch-all designed for everything throwaway, from the appalling ‘Barbie Girl’ pap pop of Aqua to the virulent tune-mongering pop of Lightning Seeds. Somewhere in between, we find the Spice Girls but, with the backlash kicking in like there’s no tomorrow, attention will no doubt turn to the New Pop Explosion for a replacement. Hello All Saints… Problem is, they aren’t the new Spice Girls. Think of them as pop if you will, but Spice substitutes they are not.

Just take a listen to the chart-busting album opener, ‘Never Ever’, with its Shangri-Las’ intro talk-over and building to a spiralling chorus so infectious your postman won’t be able to help himself in the morning. Then try ‘Bootie Call’ for size, a song about laying in bed, wishing you could just call someone over for some… well, you know. The plucking strings tippy-toe up your road and chuck stones at the window while the vocals whisper so as to not wake your mum. Or there’s the spunky first single, ‘I Know Where It’s At’, and Prince would wet himself for a song like this. Voices seemlessly overlapping, the Bart Simpson rapping… Nah, far too sassy for the purple one. Then there’s All Saints’ cheeky reworking of The Chili Peppers’ ‘Under The Bridge’, crackling like burning vinyl before a twangy guitar picks up the song and runs with four street tough girls doing it swing style. Very cool.

Having said that, there’s your fair share of duds. All girl bands seem to have a stripped-down, sickly soul number called ‘Heaven’ and All Saints are no exception. And ‘Let’s Get Started’ is yer breezy pop song, plenty of Seventies funking with “hit” written all over it but, unfortunately, it’s straight out of the Spice songbook. Bah. Nevertheless, as a whole, this is a sassy debut with enough quality to ensure All Saints will go the distance. Without that Spice tag round their necks.

Natalie Imbruglia doesn’t fare so well with Left Of The Middle, which waivers from infectious jangley to scary trip hop. On the plus side, there’s ‘Impressed’ which sets its stall next to Shakespears Sister, its whirling strings and thumping rhythm section making for the grooviest track on the album. And that outro… begging for a remix. Then, of course, there’s the dangerously addictive ‘Torn’, but topping it and taking the album by storm is the car-washed Portishead of ‘Leave Me Alone’. Fantastically Bristolian with its weeping, string-soaked sweep and sparse double-bass b-line, it’s very neat indeed.

Gone are the days when Imbruglia appeared in her underwear on the pages of Loaded, and Left Of The Middle leaves you in no doubt that she has a very fine voice. This is not someone who will be selling records purely on the strength of how good she looks or how little she’s wearing on the sleeve. The problem comes with the worrying amount of nothingy AOR tracks she offers. Rickie Lee Jones, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon have a lot to answer for. It’s their music and not the easy Nineties reference points of Crow and Morissette which influences Imbruglia. Unfortunately, those two are fresher in the mind. It’s the old Gene being a watered-down Smiths’ type argument all over again.

So, the New Pop Explosion. A flash in pop’s pan or a musical force to be reckoned with? Judging by the amount of column inches these two acts will have gathered by the time we’re tucking into turkey, this is certainly no minor blip. But, as we wait for the Spice bubble to finally burst, there’s no prizes for guessing who’ll be cheering loudest when it finally goes… erm, pop.

© Neil MasonMelody Maker, 29 November 1997

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