SUGABABES: CATFIGHTS AND SPOTLIGHTS *** ISLAND, £12.99
DON'T be fooled by Sugababes' bored-secretary demeanour. They may not appear to be the most high-energy group, but they haven't stopped working since Amelle Berrabah replaced Mutya Buena at the end of 2005, churning out this sixth album since 2000 when they could have been on a beach holiday or at least visiting the nail salon.
Six albums is an impressive haul, particularly in the manufactured pop realm where staying power is not much of a consideration. And it turns out that the sheer volume of material they have produced means that they have clocked up more Top 10 hit singles than even the Spice Girls, Destiny's Child or Bananarama.
As much as it is possible to glean in such a controlled environment, Sugababes have more natural talent and singing ability than their chief rivals, Girls Aloud. But what use is that if they don't have the songs? Girls Aloud have the fabulous Xenomania team to churn out playful hit after hit. Sugababes have the guy who wrote some of Robyn's not-quite-hits, and the one with the hat from Orson.
Happily, they do a better job here than on any recent Sugababes album. Though they can still produce the earworm hit singles, such as Push The Button and About You Now, Sugababes' albums have tended to be patchy affairs. Catfights And Spotlights boasts a more consistent musical strike rate over its 12 tracks.
Girls is their best single in some time, thanks to the (now fairly predictable) use of a sample, this time from Ernie K Doe's R&B groover Here Come The Girls. Sugababes' idea of reclaiming the song for their own sex involves donning "five inch heels" and indulging in teasing bodytalk ("read my curves like poetry"), which only perpetuates the idea that girls should flaunt themselves physically in order to have "control". Despite the line "with or without a man I feel complete", the entire song is about attracting male attention.
So much for empowerment. By the next track, the Motown girl group-influenced You On A Good Day, they are playing the long-suffering partner of a useless boyfriend who is "messed up from your chromosomes to your enzymes" and keeps letting his friends order strippers when he should be cleaning the grouting – don't you hate it when that happens? Apparently Sugababes don't mind too much: "I just said fine." At least they've regained their self-respect by the next song, the Jacksons-like No Can Do, and are giving the waster the heave-ho.
Disco odyssey Hanging On A Star is reminiscent of the Irvine Welsh short story in which Kylie, Madonna and a host of other beauties lust over pin-up pictures of peely-wally Scottish men. Sugababes inform their male listeners "they don't have a clue how much I feel for you, I don't care if it's wrong or right, will my fantasy ever come true? cos I'm hanging… hanging… hanging". Go on, gents, put 'em out of their misery.
Sure, it is all only pop music and it is at least executed here with a modicum of wit, but I can't help wincing at lyrics such as "pulling all sorts of trickery tryin' to get in my knickers". The teenagers who sang the sublime Overload are now grown women, and perfectly at liberty to turn on the mechanical sex appeal. But Sugababes do still command a large teen and even preteen audience reeled in over the years, and Catfights And Spotlights only offers them a limited repertoire of role models – eyelash-batting temptress, ballbreaker with an ultimatum, or fragrant femme from a Flake ad, mooning over a broken heart.
There are a couple of strong ballads in the heartbreak category. Sound Of Goodbye and Sunday Rain are both suitably overwrought melodramas, while Unbreakable takes the rather more realistic down-but-not-out view that it is better to have loved and lost than to play it safe.
Every Heart Broken – originally called "Murder One" but presumably retitled so as not to make Sugababes look like psychos – makes Sugababes look like psychos, as they each recount a succession of relationships (code-named Boy One, Boy Two, etc) which all appear to have failed because the boy in question died or met with some horrible misfortune. Strangest of all is that this potential Hammer Horror of a song is delivered in deadly earnest in the guise of a traditional pop ballad. But they are joking, right?
As this series of unfortunate events demonstrates, happiness and fulfilment don't generally provide the best lyrical fodder, but it would have been refreshing to have found a counterbalance somewhere on this album.