Sugababes: Three

Sugababes: Three **

UNIVERSAL/ISLAND 13.99

This year, the unexpected success of Girls Aloud (however short-lived that success may yet turn out to be) has thrown a spanner in the girl group works. Prior to the quintet’s assembly by television, the Sugababes stood alone, the genre-vaulting pop monster it was okay to like. Sugababes were the first girl group since The Spice Girls and All Saints era not only to master the art of the knockout hit single but to manage to release a few good uns in a row, both in their original incarnation with pale and interesting Siobhan Donaghy and their current line-up with grinning, perma-tanned Scouser Heidi Range.

They were not afraid to try something slightly left-of-centre, releasing Freak Like Me, their dancefloor-quaking version of the underground bootleg track which spliced Adena Howard’s Freak Like Me and the Tubeway Army’s Are Friends Electric? It went straight to number one and spawned a number of copycat efforts. So far no one else has followed their lead in naming an album - last year’s Angels With Dirty Faces - after a James Cagney picture.

But Girls Aloud have shown that any pack of minimally talented, charisma-free supermarket checkout girls can achieve similar goals with the right management and songwriting teams behind them - in their case, sometimes with exactly the same songwriters. Their tendency to favour ballsy contemporary guitar-inflected upbeat numbers over sappy ballads or cover versions is a direct response to the Sugababes credible chart attack and the relatively wide audience they have attracted as a result. Now would be the time for the ’Babes to step up their game.

Instead, this third album actually stands in the shadow of Girls Aloud’s more appealing debut. Put simply, it lacks the killer singles of its predecessor. The girls have given it a fair shot - at 14 tracks long, Three provides enough leeway to manoeuvre about the rock, soul, dance, gospel and R&B styles which make up Sugababes’ diverse pop palette without outstaying its welcome. But there is nothing to make a song and dance about.

New single Hole in the Head is naggingly catchy but not a great enough song that anyone would want it floating about their brain. A better gambit is Twisted. When this minimal Princely funk track gets into your head, it won’t be dislodged, but it could do with more illustrious company.

There is the apprehension that the girls are just ticking the requisite boxes to prove their versatility and trendiness. Whatever Makes You Happy is built on a glam rock stomp of a rhythm, previously employed by Five on their cover of Queen’s We Will Rock You. Million Different Ways is just a pedestrian pop track which tacks on some tinny, computer-generated Indian vibes in place of a rock solid hookline. Situation’s Heavy and Maya even incorporate subtle nods to the pulsing ambience which crops up on numerous Radiohead tracks.

Throughout the album, there is a fixed diet of such sonic trimmings and a sprinkling of hep girl talk which the Sugababes wear like borrowed robes. The erstwhile sulky schoolgirls are still emotionally detached and unable to really sell their songs.

So they’ve brought in the big guns for extra insurance. Ex-4 Non Blondes frontwoman Linda Perry, who has penned numerous international hits for Pink and Christina Aguilera, including modern standard Beautiful, has been drafted in to collaborate on Nasty Ghetto, a 21st-century approximation of Into the Groove with a decent dirty electro sound but no melodic charm.

Diane Warren, the mother of the power ballad, faxes over Too Lost in You, into which the girls invest the level of feeling such lyrical gubbins as "flowing into your arms, falling into your eyes" deserves. Expect either of these two to crop up as singles for the name behind them rather than any individual merits.

You would step absently over the other ballads before engaging with them. Caught in a Moment and Sometimes are lushly produced in the same tastefully restrained vein as Stronger. Neither overcooked showstoppers nor grey boy band fodder, they are just mediocre filler, waiting to be plucked from the pack at the album-milking stage of, say, the third or fourth single. The girls’ voices are not interesting enough to create any extra intrigue, although they are characteristic enough to distinguish between Mutya’s emotionally flat nasal tones, Keisha’s self-consciously ornamented crooning and Heidi’s gutsy delivery.

Credibility is a fragile state in the pop world. With Three (you’d think there might have been some imagination left over to come up with a more arresting title), Sugababes just about retain their position as the cool girl gang but they may find that, while they fuss over their style and poise, more people want to be friends with Girls Aloud.