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Sugababes - Topic

Three [Germany] Play

Sugababes straightforwardly titled third release may have lacked a single quite as striking as "Freak Like Me," the tremendous electro-clash/mash-up cash-in smash from their breakthrough sophomore set, Angels with Dirty Faces, but otherwise it improves on that album in many respects. Following the same essential template -- tuneful, R&B-inflected dance-pop with fresh-sounding but accessible productions, along with a healthy smattering of big droopy ballads -- with an expanded stylistic range, Three boasts a sonic approach both lusher and more intricately detailed, and, most significantly, stronger songwriting almost across the board, much of it contributed at least in part by the Babes themselves. And if it was less revelatory than "Freak," this album's chart-topping lead single/opener "Hole in the Head" was no less enjoyable -- a slice of bouncy, slightly off-kilter up-tempo pop reminiscent of Angels' second number one single, "Round Round." Both were produced and co-written by Xenomania, fresh from their career-making work on Girls Aloud's debut album -- and so were several of Three's other highlights, including the playfully funky "Twisted," and the ruminative, woozily floaty "Situation's Heavy." Elsewhere, Pete Craigie and Guy Sigsworth conjure up blankets of electronic gloss to swathe the barnstorming robo-pop of "Whatever Makes You Happy," the Eastern-tinged quasi-Diwali of "Million Different Ways," and the beautiful, throbbing slow-burner "Maya," a metaphysical missive to a lost friend that reflects: "If this universe is really shrinking/we'll be together in time." Then there are the ballads, arguably Sugababes' strongest suit: Three has no less than four of them (five if you include the less formally classicist "Maya") evenly spaced throughout the album, of which the obvious standout is the pitch-perfect "Caught in a Moment," a stirring, string-laden monolith of melody. It may seem incongruous for such unabashed sentimentality and frankly conventional arrangements to coexist with electronic dance-pop so thoroughly modern in sound and sensibility -- and indeed it's easy to imagine listeners attracted by one aspect of Sugababes' pop-craft being turned off by the other. But ultimately they are two sides of a coin -- timeless if sudsy ballads and flashy novelty dance tunes -- both very much in keeping with the great interpretive pop tradition, of which Sugababes are among our most consummate and sophisticated modern exponents. ~ K. Ross Hoffman, Rovi

Change Play

It's amazing what effect a big hit single can have on album sales -- not merely an average-sized number one single, and the Sugababes at this point of their career had six of them (including the charity collaboration with Girls Aloud) -- but a massive radio-friendly number one single that even average listeners can't get out of their heads. Well, having hit the top of the singles chart with "About You Now," the Sugababes unleashed their sixth album, Change, which was the first to feature new member Amelle Berrabah after Mutya Buena departed to pursue a solo career, leaving Keisha Buchanan as the only original remaining member of the group. The omens were not looking great. Change was the first release after the career summary Overloaded: The Singles Collection, and the most recent single, "Follow Me Home," had become their lowest-charting single to date. The Sugababes needn't have worried, however. Following the Comic Relief charity number one with Girls Aloud, "Walk This Way" (a rather messy version of the Aerosmith hit), " About You Now" was released and topped the chart throughout the whole of October 2007. One of the catchiest pop singles of the year, it propelled the album to the top, giving the group a simultaneous number one single and album. With various tracks produced by William Orbit, Dallas Austin, and the U.K.-based production team of Xenomania, the whole album from beginning to end was a slice of sophisticated dance-pop, midtempo songs that Girls Aloud (their greatest rivals for girl band supremacy) wouldn't record, and slushy ballads that the Spice Girls should have been recording for their comeback album. At the end of the day, it really didn't matter whether people thought the album was credible and worthy -- it was pure pop with hummable songs and good melodies. Change was good to listen to and even better to dance to, and one could not ask more of the Sugababes or any other so-called manufactured pop band. ~ Sharon Mawer, Rovi

Angels with Dirty Faces Play

One of the best pop albums of 2002 wasn't released in the U.S. If that's not dropping the ball, then what is? An assured and durable follow-up to 2001's formative One Touch, which still packed a number of singles that gave the group a great deal of success overseas, Angels With Dirty Faces is a thoroughly convincing amalgamation of the artists they've been weaned on -- from Madonna to TLC to Aaliyah -- with a strong foothold in contemporary trends. A bootleg mash-up of Adina Howard's "Freak Like Me" and Gary Numan's "Are Friends Electric" led to the group's own spin on the trick, and it landed them the top spot on the U.K. chart. Using a beefed-up arrangement of Numan's robotic new-wave tune, the Sugababes lift Howard's forthright lyrics -- somewhat sheepishly, the "pump pump" that precedes "all through the night" is subsumed in the mix -- and weave the two elements together for a powerful and immensely catchy opening to the album. At no point during the remainder of the first half does the album lose steam. The verses of "Blue" are backed by jutting electronic beats that stutter and twist, while the chorus unwraps a tempo shift carrying an unexpectedly strummy quality. "Round Round," another hit that put the group on Top of the Pops, is something Garbage would no doubt love to have in their own catalog. Apart from a couple bum moments during the second half of the album -- see "Shape," a misguided re-configuration of Sting's "Shape of My Heart," replete with a literally patched-on appearance from the man himself -- this is a pop album that offers much more depth and excitement beyond the singles. ~ Andy Kellman, Rovi

Catfights and Spotlights Play

Thirteen months before the launch of their sixth studio album, the Sugababes saw monumental success with their fifth release, Change, and its lead single "About You Now." With its glossy electric feel, the powerful impact that "About You Now" had on the charts only further solidified Keisha Buchanan, Heidi Range, and Amelle Berrabah as three of the most formidable personalities in British pop music. Change was the group's most accessible radio-friendly release to date, which is why it seems more odd that their sixth release would be so much the opposite. However, odd doesn't necessarily mean bad, as Catfights and Spotlights, the title of the group's sixth sampling, stands poised to be the group's strongest showing to date. While it was never in doubt that the group was one of the new millennium's most influential girl groups, this time around Buchanan, Range, and Berrabah dive into a new dimension of artistic merit, flashing impeccable songwriting skills and flourishing arrangements thanks to the help of immaculate production, which throws the girl into a retro bodysuit yet never feels stale. After five albums (plus a greatest-hits launch) and ten years in the business, it seemed obvious that the group felt the pressure to hold onto their stake in pop music's ephemeral market, hoping to make that rare transition from being simply a girl pop group to mature divas, something that even the Spice Girls had trouble doing. In fact, it appears that the ladies hoped to do that by taking the overused idea of soulful retro sounds which plagued 2007 and 2008 and using them as a jumping-off point, creating songs like "Girls," which are as refreshing as anything new by any artist these days. However, "Girls" operates as a wonderful testament to the power of the '70s at its best. Show-stopping numbers like "You on a Good Day" and "No Can Do" work as shimmering displays of subtle strength, building on the recurring themes of enticing harmonies and vocal showcasing which are seen as the most dominant traits that the girls are showing off this time around. The album is by far the group's most coherent, mature sampling, and more than a handful of tracks, including "Sunday Rain" and "Unbreakable Heart" seem made with the sole purpose of dominating the adult contemporary chart. Even without fawning over so many other tracks, the number "Every Heart Broken" alone reflects the perfect imperfection that the group boasts. It operates as the group's single most raw and powerful track to date. While the album lacks the most vainglorious electric numbers which seem to dominate the radio waves these days (simply ask the Sugababes/Girls Aloud knock-offs the Saturdays), Catfights and Spotlights is the true reflection of a girl group's transition from shallow pop stardom into full-fledged recording artistry, and this album is the clear sign that these girls have reached tenure to the point where they will operate as wildly successful recording artists at any age, at any time. This album is only the beginning of a whole new chapter of the Sugababes musical lifetime, which should be filled with critical acclaim if the music is anywhere near as good as it is right now. ~ Matthew Chisling, Rovi

One Touch Play

Less sculpted than Steps, not as gaudy as Destiny's Child, and, if you can believe it, far more of an awkward, provocative outfit than just about any logical peer, the Sugababes didn't so much usher in the suffused post-millennium market for myopic pop as give it a much-needed kiss of nubile soul. Clearly 16-year-olds Keisha Buchanan, Siobhan Donaghy, and Mutya Buena have been weaned on Madonna and Aaliyah records, taking from them their feminist assurance and passion, but they remind us of a valuable lesson -- if you're going to hew melodious, structurally accessible songs out of cold dub and rock, it really helps to use actual feeling and sincerity, and hang on to every shaky personal trait that got you there in the first place. From the Reebok Matterhorn-rumble of "Overload" to the petal-plucking Bangles cheval glass of "Soul Sound" and on to the nocturnal, string-doused pop-wonderland-with-trenchant-garage-middle-bit that's "Run for Cover," the jitters of youth are here though tempered by shrewd ambition and a clever and unpredictable production aesthetic. As alarmingly undeveloped LPs go, One Touch is everything a post-Spice Girls teen pop debut should be -- discreet, adolescent, and as unstudied as a late-night phone call about boys. ~ Dean Carlson, Rovi

Taller in More Ways Play

Sugababes were one of the most consistently successful British pop acts of the 2000s, with an unparalleled string of innovative Top Ten singles and solid if not faultless full-lengths. Their fourth, the awkwardly named Taller in More Ways, was no exception -- indeed it was their first album to hit number one, and among their strongest. As usual, the singles tend to shine the brightest, but there are only a handful of truly lesser tracks scattered among the state-of-the-art dancefloor stompers and towering ballads. The simple yet effective electro-pop club ditty "Push the Button" was the first single (and it topped the charts as handily as its predecessors had), but even better in that category is the monstrously funky "Red Dress," a Xenomania track reminiscent of their frisky Girls Aloud productions, that makes excellent use of a rejiggered horn section sampled from a '60s Northern soul cut ("Landslide" by Tony Clarke). In the latter column, both "Follow Me Home" and "Ugly" are aptly pitched inspirational mini-epics dealing, respectively, with romantic and body-image issues (even if "we only get judged by what we do" sounds like rather wishful thinking, the 'Babes make you believe it). And it gets deeper than that, in several ways: the breezy, ska-punk-tinged "Joy Division" (which has nothing to do with that band, musically or lyrically); the sugary synth pop of "Obsession" (a cover of '80s new wavers Animotion); the intoxicating, hard-hitting "It Ain't Easy," which pits a menacingly swung, twangy guitar riff -- lifted so blatantly from Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus," it's a wonder Martin Gore doesn't get a writing credit -- against a martial strut and agitated double-time group vocals. "Gotta Be You" pillages less successfully: despite a passable foundation of synth-fuzz R&B with trendy tabla-esque skittering, it treads so melodically close to Aaliyah's majestic "Try Again" that it can't help but pale by comparison. Meanwhile, the final three cuts fail to leave much of an impression -- there's nothing like "Maya," the haunting closer on Three. Even so, the overall quality of the material, the production, and of course Sugababes' trademark vocal work -- subtly satisfying without being showy -- are enough to make this another winner from one of the winningest (and most winsome) pop groups going. [In 2006, following the departure of Mutya Buena from the group, Taller in More Ways was reissued with one new track and re-recorded versions of "Gotta Be You," "Follow Me Home," and "Red Dress" featuring new member Amelle Berrabah.] ~ K. Ross Hoffman, Rovi

Overloaded: The Singles Collection Play

During the seven-year span covered on Overloaded, Sugababes released four albums and 16 singles, while they lost -- and replaced -- two members. Twelve of those singles, in addition to a pair of new songs, make up the disc. It's an ideal introduction to the group since its four omissions (three of which made up their formative debut) were the four lowest-performing chart-wise, and it just so happens that they were also the least memorable of the bunch. Each of the 12 songs that form the basis of the disc placed in the U.K.'s Top Ten; four of them reached the very top, from the Richard X-produced "Freak Like Me" to the Dallas Austin-produced "Push the Button" -- two of the most clever and suggestive pop singles of the decade. "Good to Be Gone" and "Easy," the first two completely new songs recorded with Amelle Berrabah, indicate that the group hasn't lost any of its momentum. Unfortunately, despite their tremendous amount of appeal and popularity across Europe, they've never been given much of a chance in the States. A domestic issue of Three was planned and then scrapped, though "Hole in the Head" and "Round Round" did impact the dance charts. ~ Andy Kellman, Rovi
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