Pop – or rather, the perception of it – has come a long way since 2003. As a forum-frequenting witness to the feverish hostility between fans of the UK’s most prolific noughties girl groups, I appreciate that crowbarring Girls Aloud into a reappraisal of a Sugababes album may scan as a mammoth failure of imagination. But while it’s safe to assume that at gunpoint any pinhead could muster a joke about the Sugababes’s infamous line-up changes and the philosophical implications they present, there appears to be significantly less interest in the Freaky Friday-style swap that took place between the perceived credibility of each band by the end of their Top 40 tenures.
Sugababes began life as young counterparts to All Saints, with their remarkably cohesive but underrated debut One Touch setting the precedent for the adolescent trio; they were moody, despondent and reluctantly cool. One change in personnel and one triple-platinum album (2002’s Angels with Dirty Faces) later, and the ‘Babes were bona fide popstars with a skilfully retained edge over the talent show-assembled Girls Aloud. The addition of glossy Liverpudlian Heidi Range may have resulted in some welcome lad mag coverage, but the Sugababes were still ostensibly seen as credible and streetwise when compared to their nubile pop puppet rivals. This is despite the fact that each group’s launch – or in the Babes’s case, relaunch – hinged on the work of the same production team.
“Round Round” and “Sound of the Underground” remain alien to cliché, and both came courtesy of Xenomania. Even though their full-time musical avatars Girls Aloud could knock out a flamboyantly aggressive masterpiece like “Graffiti My Soul” by their sophomore album, the band’s tacky image, along with the singer / songwriter marketing angle the Babes established with the release of One Touch, allowed the latter to emerge as identifiably credible. But as we learnt during the risible busker-rock revival of 2005-07, credibility means zilch if you have nothing else to offer. There’s no doubt Range, Mutya Buena, and Keisha Buchanan had something special between them, and it was the Three era that distilled this in its most potent form.
Try our own mix of “Three” via Spotify.
We feel the need to say ‘era’ – as opposed to ‘album’ – purely because of quality of the copious B-sides it offered, with the bracingly confident “Someone in My Bed”, “Who” and “Down Down” notably pointing to a grimier record than the one we received. Although essentially working by the same blueprint as the album’s lead single “Hole in the Head”, “Someone…” wraps its layers of bubbly electronics and grinding guitar around a steamy toast to the joy of drunken hook-ups. When one Babe talks of sauntering down the stairs to brag about a particularly successful session, it’s as if one of the more salacious lunchtime chitchats from Sex and the City was set to music, and it’s absolutely brilliant.
“Who” rides an almost comically abrasive quasi-garage beat, but combative vocals (not to mention a rap) match the instrumental’s aggression, exhibiting a sense of attitude often hinted at throughout their career but never fully exploited. It’s a highlight of the Sugababes discography, and could easily have satiated the appetites of those expecting a comeback single as bold and leftfield as “Freak Like Me”. On the other end of the spectrum, gloomy trip-hop ballad “Disturbed” sources a chillingly aloof performance from each Babe bar Buchanan, who finds genuine pain in the occasionally opaque lyrics. The apocalyptic-bell-tolling dance-floor romp “Down Down”, meanwhile, stands proudly alongside “Someone in My Bed” as they girls’s horniest track to date.
As unfortunate as the absence of these darker cuts may be, even in its committee-approved form, Three ladles themes of depression and identity (the folky melancholic shuffle of “Situation’s Heavy”), music industry politics (the towering electropop rapture of “Whatever Makes You Happy”, taking the bassline of Sly Fox’s “Let’s Go All the Way” as a jump-off point), and the loss of a sibling (Mutya’s solo track “Maya”) among the ballads and expected club-ready joints, and as a collection of random but rock-solid pop songs, its near-impossible to resist.
While there’s little resembling an overarching sound, many of the tracks come seasoned with an appealingly rough-and-ready vibe, with even the more polished numbers bearing ballsy production choices, most notably “Million Different Ways”, which pitches a ballad-paced melody against a breathless Eastern-influenced beat and lashings of harpsichord.
The legitimacy of writing credits – of which the Babes here claim thirteen – is endlessly debatable, but the inclusion of a track as raw and as personal as “Maya” indicates that someone on-board was putting their heart and soul into Three. It also makes for truly beautiful closer. The soul-bearing lyrics (“If this universe is really shrinking, we’ll be together in time”) hit hard, but it’s a screwed up refrain of “Na na na-nay” that ends the album on a haunting note. But not all the ballads are as emotionally scarring; “Too Lost in You” is too melodramatic to register as anything other than impressively portentous, “Caught in a Moment” relays romantic trepidations over syrupy strings in laudably pedantic detail, while “Conversation’s Over” features what are arguably the finest harmonies in the group’s history, ultimately leaving an optimistic stamp on the song’s potentially dour break-up theme.
As strong as the individual tracks may be, it’s hard not to think that had only the Sugababes been less concerned with fronting the album with their latest number one single with subsequent tracks left to aimlessly follow, then the record could have made a real impression with critics. Instead the chronic lack of flow exacerbates the few flaws that Three actually has (including the tuneless “Nasty Ghetto” and the corny Destiny’s Child pastiche “Buster”). Had the record been released in this form today, however, it would most likely find ample acclaim; critics are now far more receptive to the idea of a girl band who think outside the box. Taking the recent canonisation of Destiny’s Child as an example, perhaps Beyoncé’s continued ascendance has simply inflated personal concepts of what a group can achieve, as well as the talent they can house. Back in 2003, critics seemed bemused by the direction of Three, with The Guardian describing it as “mildly hip” and “self-consciously mature”. In 2015, a mainstream act with such strong pop sensibilities presented in an effortlessly cool faux-indie package would be hailed as the second coming.
So as the Babes disintegrated into a dispiritingly bland (and eventually unrecognisable) entity, Girls Aloud dropped their fifth record “Out of Control” in the midst of a perfect storm driven by Cheryl Cole’s popularity, a critical re-evaluation of the girls’ genre-straddling discography, and an almost ironic widespread admiration for manufactured pop. The fact that your mother could hum “The Promise” after hearing their X-Factor performance from the kitchen didn’t hurt their album sales, either.
Of course, Girls Aloud deserve all the praise they get (and then some), but considering the bitterness that would soon ensue between Heidi, Mutya and Keisha, Three has emerged as a musical time-capsule that’s as diverse and assured as it is fascinating. RG