Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Sugababes - Catfights & Spotlights (Island)

Who’d have thought, eight years ago, that a trio of working-class schoolgirls would develop into an acclaimed British pop institution? Well, only one of that trio did, technically – but Sugababes, as a band and as a brand, have come to be respected and recognised, and as such, can be taken for granted to the extent that the nation will open identify their new single as an unreserved piece of shit.

It kinda serves a purpose here, mind. Where fifth album Change had to live up to astronomical expectations set by About You Now, it’s the opposite for Catfights & Spotlights, whose lead single Girls will go down as a dirty great black mark on the career of the Sugababes. Never mind the tracks that missed the Top 30, the one that sampled the Boots ad will rightfully remain the albatross on a generally flawless catalogue.

Which begs the question, is there anything the remainder of Catfights & Spotlights can do to redeem matters? In short, hell yes. Girls pales into near-insignificance amongst the ingenuity and sinister charm of Every Heart Broken, or the lovelorn 21st century doo-wop of Nothing’s As Good As You.

Some material, while high in quality, does feel slightly more imitative than we’re used to from the Sugababes. Bearing in mind Overload was mother to any number of thunderous pop masterpieces since 2000, it’s a shame that no such innovation makes an appearance on Catfights & Spotlights. Nonetheless, excellence doesn’t always spring from originality – see the Bond-esque Sunday Rain, or the Winehouse-circa-sobriety superbness of Beware. There are very noticeable Sixties overtones throughout, which may well be a conscious leap aboard an already-tired bandwagon, yet the ’Babes pull it off with personality and finesse.

Ironically for a group of women in their mid-twenties, they’ve still failed to produce anything as mature as gymslip debut One Touch, but Catfights & Spotlights comes dangerously close. It’s a cohesive snapshot of where the Sugababes – after personnel changes, label politics, unwelcome scabloid coverage and the occasional duff musical choice – are right now, and it’s a far stronger place than at least three previous albums.

And if Change didn’t fully cement Amelle Berrabah as a paid-up member of the Sugababes proper, Catfights & Spotlights soon lays the now surprisingly-distant ghost of Mutya to rest (presumably in a Puffa-lined, studded coffin). The slightly clumsy Side Chick is rescued entirely by sixty-mile-a-minute rappery courtesy of Berrabah, drenched in a distinctive attitude no other Sugababe, past or present, has proved capable of.

The Sugababes have reached a point in their career where each new album release feels almost comforting. You know it’s coming, you know roughly what to expect, and it never carries the foreboding of, say, a Britney Spears or Girls Aloud release. In this respect, there may be a danger of complacency amongst both the band and the public, but on the strengths of Catfights & Spotlights as an album, the material is going to keep everyone more than interested for a long time yet.

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