here aren’t a lot of second chances in teen pop. It’s a fickle world and even though the sounds themselves rarely go out of style, the performers and personalities do with alarming frequency. Its core audience, the kids, aren’t going to notice that fourth album at the Target checkout and, reminded how much they loved the music back in high school or college or whenever, dutifully plop down cash out of loyalty. It’s what you’ve done for them lately that counts—especially in the UK, where a couple of singles outside of the top 10 has the suits scrambling for another brand name. So when the Sugababes fourth single, the marvelous lilting, hopeful “Soul Sound” stalled at 30—just a few places lower than where their debut album, One Touch, peaked—and a band members split, they seemed destined for the dustbin.
They were always going to have the empty consolation of that asterisk, however: Praise from people whose approval they never sought. They were “the girl pop group it’s OK to like.” Debut single “Overload” even landed in the NME’s year-end top 10 while it was still primarily stubbornly clinging to the indie-only ashes of the Britpop bubble burst. The permissive smugness was granted because the girls at least co-wrote all of their own tunes and instead of coming across as perky media-hungry automotrons they wore sullen looks and a full set of clothes. If the authenticity watchdogs had the wisdom to listen with some combination of their heart, head, and hips rather than their knees, they would have needed to seek few excuses to embrace the Sugababes’ debut album.
The anomaly of a being a teen pop group that cocked the ears of the broadsheets and the rock crowd was that when that album was released it was considered in full rather than assumed to be laden with filler. It was a fortunate development because the band’s label had some pretty funny ideas about choosing singles.
It then released two other soulful ballads: “Run for Cover” and the aforementioned “Soul Sound.” Each are graceful and sublime, but they hardly hinted at the diversity of the record and left fans originally attracted to upbeat “Overload” in the dark about whether their was more of the same on the full-length. Even more frustratingly, in the midst of 2-step’s pop peak, the garage-tinged “Same Old Story” was left on the shelf.
Things looked bleak at Camp Sugababes. Sophomore albums rarely outsell debuts in the world of teen pop. About the only thing the girls had going for them was that they were never popular enough to seem passe. And then it happened. With their backs against it, the Sugababes rolled the dice on their careers and longevity by releasing a record that sounds almost too improbably Now. They hooked up with bootleg whiz Richard X and covered one of his Girls on Top creations, “We Don’t Give a Damn About Our Friends,” which places the vocal from Adina Howard’s mid-1990s hit “Freak Like Me” over the synth noir of Gary Numan’s “Are ‘Friends’ Electric.” Combining the burgeoning bootleg craze and electro revival with near-burst bubble of Britney and the sleek sass of American R&B and hip-hop, “Freak Like Me” landed at No. 1 on the UK singles charts.
For the second time, the Sugababes’ debut album was hamstrung by having to live up to the excitement of its lead single, and for the second time the record doesn’t disappoint. “Virgin Sexy” is a fine song, save the utterly unfortunate chorus and the fact that it doesn’t quite hit the highs or lows of “Freak Like Me”. But this is still a joyous, buoyant record that displays growth without being by weighed down by leaden grasps at adult contemporary-friendly maturity.
Elsewhere on the record the girls are cocksure and gritty, deflecting their so solid crew’s hangers-on in “Blue,” dabbling with hip-hop on “Stronger” and “Angels With Dirty Faces,” and showing more allegiance to American pop stars 3LW or Brandy than UK contemporaries such as Atomic Kitten on “Supernatural” and “Switch.” Second No. 1 single “Round Round” kept the wining streak in tact and its choice indicates that Team Sugababes has developed the decision-making skills to match its quality control.
Fortunately, once again the ballads aren’t drags either, although none is as wonderful as the best of those from the first album. More moody and atmospheric, the girls are wise enough to mix with the arrangements rather than stepping on them. “Stronger” is the best of the bunch—and the most reminiscent of One Touch—but it’s the other two that potentially point to a troubling future. The album version of “Breathe Easy” is a remix of the already spacious “Freak Like Me” B-side, needlessly stripped to acoustic guitar. The original is a boy-girl song about finding a improbably satisfying love and having the uncommon wisdom to slow down and enjoy it, but more than that it’s also about Sugababes Mk II. Confident and forward-looking, it’s the sound satisfaction after accomplishing the spectacular. Unfortunately, the “acoustic jam” version on the album is as precious as the title.
Wrapped around a sample from a Sting song—and even featuring his voice on the chorus—“Shape” is the one for the older audiences. It works a bit better than it looks on paper as if it would, but only slightly. Frustratingly it’s the safety-first antithesis of the brave “Freak Like Me.”
If their first album, ultimately best characterized by its sweet 60s soul touch, was about moving away from being “daddy’s little girl” and going out and risking getting hurt, the Sugababes’ second is about the lessons learned from being able experience life and why it made them stronger. Sadly the touches of Shadow Morton theatrics are gone, but in their place are the giddy bounce between more muscular, sultry contemporary R&B. It’s as if they not only ditched their fathers’ watchful eyes but their record collections, too.
Second-guessing aside, the Sugababes haven’t yet grown out of or stopped making thrilling pop records. And they’re still chipping in with the writing (enjoying co-writing credits on all but three of Angels With Dirty Faces’ 14 tracks) if you care about that, and they’re still selling hooks more than looks, if you care about that. They are, however, now on the UK pop A-list so the dice rolling likely won’t be repeated.
Yet maybe it’s not the boldness of “Freak Like Me” that ultimately matters, however. Naturally, it’s the sound. With that in mind, the most improbable trick of “Freak Like Me” isn’t that in this era of rampant revivalism—and the suspicion of the same—the Sugababes made a cover record that dripped with cool. It’s that they also got a portion of their listeners to fall in love with the same track less than one year after its original release. (To say nothing of its two pieces of source material and a recent 2-step cover.) While rock is all to often hindered by a game of influence spotting (e.g. Interpol = Joy Division + Chameleons + Kitchens of Distinction) instead of listening, the Sugababes neatly sidestepped the issue by making a downright ace single and selling it to a crowd that only uses their knees for dancing.
Like Interpol the Sugababes haven’t matched the exquisiteness of their pre-LP teaser (or their debut album), but incredibly they’ve gone off and made a second record of teen pop/R&B bliss that deflects that genre’s laziest critical tag: ignorance.
Reviewed by: Scott Plagenhoef
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01