Sugababes, Robots in disguise
Friday October 5, 2007
But more gawp-inducing still is the fact that the Sugababes are still here. Normally, when a pop act releases a greatest hits album, it's a signal that the jig is up and the record company are filling out their contract with one last release. But a year on from Overloaded, their hits compilation, their single About You Now has just entered the charts at No 1. Normally, when a member of a pop band decides to quit, that's it: solemn press conferences are called, tearful announcements are made thanking the fans, distraught tweenage girls and gay men have to be talked down off high ledges. But the Sugababes shed members without denting their success. In early photographs, latest recruit Amelle Berrabah wore a weird, rigid, glazed expression that suggested solitary original member Keisha Buchanan might have finally opted to cut out the middleman and start replacing her departing band mates with shop-window dummies. But it seems Berrabah is very much alive: last month the tabloids were rife with rumours that she was for the chop as well.
Those baffled by the Sugababes' longevity might note their pragmatic willingness to shift with the times. They exploited the vogue for bootleg mash-up remixes by re-recording Richard X's We Don't Give a Damn About Our Friends as Freak Like Me. While R&B held sway among the nation's youth, they nearly did themselves a mischief trying to establish their gangsta credentials, knocking out songs called things called Nasty Ghetto and Buster. These days, with ersatz indie the basic currency of the charts, they've made an ersatz indie single. Change finds them still on the move, with their most celebrated collaborators relegated to the subs' bench. Xenomania, the team behind hits Round Round and Hole in the Head, get two songs - both Never Gonna Dance Again, with its lyrical nods to George Michael's Careless Whisper, and the propulsive My Love Is Pink are classy examples of their trademark clever, referential pop - and R&B producer Dallas Austin gets only one: understandably so, if the dreary AOR of Back When is the best he can muster.
One of their replacement collaborators is credited as Novel, thus raising the interesting prospect that Change may be the first pop album in history to be partly produced by a paperback book. In fact, Novel is one of the producers that Austin, in his legendarily chivalrous YouTube outburst, accused Joss Stone of "fucking for tracks". Regardless of his chequered past, Back Down is a pleasingly odd conjunction of reggae skank and synthesised squelch. But the rest of Change is indisputably a mixed bag: between beautifully-crafted bulletproof pop songs such as Denial, there are longueurs, during which one track after another seems to evaporate as it comes out of the speakers. The longueurs drag because they're characterless, but then so are the Sugababes themselves. They're famed for a certain reserved chippiness, but the rest is a bit of a blank, in sharp contrast to their great rivals, Girls Aloud. The latter's cartoonish personas seem to fuel their producers' creative spark, giving them something to play with, inspiring them to risky heights of inventive daring. That may be why they can do the one thing that the Sugababes, despite the impressive statistics and achievements, cannot: make a consistent album. In the greater scheme of things, perhaps it doesn't matter. After all, who needs character when you seem to be immortal?
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007