Change isn't for the better

SUGABABES: CHANGE **

ISLAND, 12.99

THE title lays out the challenge for the would-be long-distance pop star in a nutshell. To survive long-term in the ephemeral world of pop, you must change. Sugababes have already had a longer shelf-life than most girl bands. Their current press release is pleased to trumpet that the trio have produced more hit albums than The Spice Girls, Destiny's Child and, yes, even The Three Degrees. And, in doing so, they have indeed changed - their membership, that is.

Just like Charlie's Angels, the Sugababes franchise prevails even though only one original member of the group remains - the mean and moody head 'Babe Keisha Buchanan, a girl with flint behind her passive smile. Twittering Scouser Heidi Range has been part of the furniture for some time now and, with the departure of the unremittingly dour Mutya Buena, pouty new girl Amelle Berrabah, destined to be dubbed "the sultry one," has seamlessly taken her place. She could yet turn out to be the Shelly Hack of the crew - flush with enthusiasm (in Sugababes' phlegmatic terms anyway) but destined for a sharp exit.

The group has changed musically too - for the worse. Sugababes had already been a tad overrated, the glowing claims for their pop supremacy more a reflection of the poor competition around them. But they did set a high standard with their debut hit, Overload, a sophisticated pop song by anyone's standards, let alone those of three unknown girls in their mid teens. The audacious likes of Freak Like Me and Round Round followed, blazing a trail for the return of the smart, sassy, arresting, exciting pop single.

Nothing they have released subsequently has come close to the buzz of these tracks and, possessing negligible collective charisma, the girls can't just wing it on the basis of being big personalities. Their greatest-hits compilation, Overloaded, highlighted the patchy nature of their back catalogue. Now, with a line drawn under their first four albums and a new member in the pack, it's certainly the time for change, but even their staunchest supporters would be forced to concede that this Change isn't for the better.

Maybe outdoing fellow girl groups past and present in longevity is enough for Sugababes, and the absence of decent pop songs on their fifth album is mere detail. Change is a parade of pretty mindless mediocrity. There is no sense of band identity, no character to the singing, and nothing fresh in the way of image ideas, with the girls pictured on the sleeve looking like sexy secretaries from a bad 1970s sitcom.

The album's only concession is the occasional chirpy tune such as current single About You Now, a straightforward want-you-back song written by one woman hit factory Cathy Can't Get You Out Of My Head Dennis, and one of the few tracks not written by the girls in collaboration with an army of writers. It's an airy, inconsequential electropop number in the same vein as their mystifyingly popular Push The Button but at least it's catchy, unlike the dreary, formulaic break-up song Never Gonna Dance Again ("I lost the rhythm when you said it's over") or the substandard Europop-like Denial with its clunking sexual imagery and bewildering observation that "I see the way the wind blows like open minds for us".

It would be foolish to come to a Sugababes album for the incisive lyrics but when your group is being consistently outclassed by Girls Aloud in the witty writing stakes, there is cause for concern. At least 3 Spoons of Suga somewhat makes up for its horrible title with silly lines such as "He don't get stressed cos he's blessed by the cut of his jeans" (very Girls Aloud, that one) and a playful attitude missing from the rest of the album.

Sleepwalking past the ballads, including the vapid title track and the cooing, middle-of-the-road Mended By You, and the conveyor-belt girl-pop of Undignified, we come to the best track of a boring bunch. Back Down may ultimately be as processed as the rest of the album, but its low-slung blues/reggae mix at least adds a different texture to the sound and is finally a chance for the girls to show what they can do vocally.

Other than this, Change could be the work of any number of pop acts, and that is its chief failing. For example, the vacuous, perky singalong My Love Is Pink, which has clearly been tailor-made for gay discos, just sounds like another of those anonymous, mass-produced party hits sung by a faceless rent-a-vocalist.

If this is where Sugababes are at five albums down the line, with the cut and thrust of Freak Like Me eradicated from their musical landscape, then a substantial change has got to come.