Album review: Sugababes - Angels with Dirty Faces

Album review: Sugababes - Angels with Dirty Faces | Random J Pop

Whilst the Sugababes’ debut album One Touch was revered by music critics and garnered a dedicated fanbase who were waiting patiently for another album, it wasn’t the hit that the record label wanted, and the ‘babes got dropped. And then if that wasn’t bad enough, Keisha and Mutya had to deal with a member leaving. There was a silver lining however, as the Sugababes were given a second chance from another record label to record a new album with a new member in tow. The Sugababes hadn’t abandoned their original sound completely, because they still had that fanbase, and the Sugababes package is part of what helped them secure a new record deal. But their new label wanted hits and a far more ‘marketable’ sound.

Angels with Dirty Faces’ lead single “Freak Like Me” was a perfect storm which intersected the Sugababes’ love for R&B, with a secular underground vibe which was far removed from top 10 chart pop in the form of a mashup, which spoke to how the Sugababes were on the pulse of what’s hot, whilst still being on the fringes. But whilst “Freak Like Me” set a template for an album very clearly, it's not one that Angels with Dirty Faces ended up following.

Angels with Dirty Faces really wanted to be a glossy pop album in all the ways their debut absolutely didn’t. “Freak Like Me” follow up single “Round Round” is a great pop record. One which would shape pop for many years to come, with writers and producers Xenomania taking the formula of this song and applying it to future girl group Girls Aloud. But it was also a huge shift for the Sugababes sonically, and also visually. “Freak Like Me” sounded and looked like the Sugababes you adored and remembered. “Round Round” sounded and looked like the Sugababes the label wanted. “Round Round” was by no means bad. It’s a great song. But it also sets an expectation for the album - one I never saw coming. Because as pop as “Round Round” was, it was still different and had this edge that made it feel unmistakably Sugababesy. But the fact that it was more ‘pop’ than anything the Sugababes had ever done, cast a shadow over the album. And whilst Angels with Dirty Faces indeed pushes the Sugababes to deliver a similar brand of pop, it isn’t able deliver the same trick twice, even with the same team behind “Round Round”.

Album review: Sugababes - Angels with Dirty Faces | Random J Pop

The thing about the Sugababes that always threw me was how eclectic their sound was, yet how it managed to stay in a lane. The Sugababes had a sound. And the surprising thing about the Sugababes’ sound is how disparate it was from the music that members of the group were into. Keisha and Mutya were North London girls who were into garage, R&B and bashment - but we only get traces of this in the music; whether it be via their use of harmonies, the Timbaland-esque drums on “Stronger”, raps on “Blue” or the patois on “More Than a Million Miles”. And yet, whenever the Sugababes try to lean into any form of R&B or a sound that could earn them ‘street credibility’, their music falters. But the problem is that when the Sugababes try to lean into typical chart trends, the music also falters. There is a specific sweet spot that works best with the Sugababes that their debut album understood. Their follow up Angels with Dirty Faces understands it too, but not enough. And the result is an album that doesn’t feel like it’s striving as high as it should, all the while being pulled in different directions.

Trying to be like other pop bitches was never what the Sugababes were about during One Touch. So something feels out of step when you hear songs like “Angels with Dirty Faces”, which is trying to proposition the girls as some form of UK Destiny’s Child or TLC. Or songs like “Supernatural” which takes off kilter synth heavy production cues from Brandy’s “What About Us?”. These songs feel like they were recorded at the request of the record label for the Sugababes to be more sexy and palatable to the pop mainstream, and it creates a rift in the album big enough for you to jump into and just listen to One Touch.

The wildest thing with this however, is that the missteps on this album would help chart success for future girl groups. Angels with Dirty Faces doesn’t get the credit that it deserved for paving a way after years of nobody really knowing where to go with girl groups. The Spice Girls and All Saints left this void in pop that nobody could really fill, not even these groups themselves. And then along came the Sugababes effortlessly leading the way without knowing that they were doing so; just for other girl groups to gain bigger successes and reap the benefits of the Sugababes’ work. Without Angels with Dirty Faces there would have been no Girls Aloud, no The Saturdays, none of these bitches. And when you compare these groups, it’s far easier to imagine the likes of Girls Aloud or the Saturdays doing a song like “Angels with Dirty Faces”, Supernatural” and “Virgin Sexy”, but not a “Stronger”, a “Blue” or a “Just Don’t Need This” - and herein lies the problem with this album.

Angels with Dirty Faces is at its best when it’s not really trying to be anything and the Sugababes are able to settle into picking up where they would’ve left off had Siobhan not escaped through a toilet window during a press tour in Japan, and London Records had allowed the girls a second chance. Jony Lipsey, Marius De Vries and Felix Howard are all brought back into the fold for Angels with Dirty Faces, having also worked with the ‘babes on One Touch, and their songs are hands down the best of the bunch. “Stronger” and “Just Don’t Need This” do a fantastic job of establishing a new sound and vibe for the Sugababes, which bridges the old with the new. With Lipsey and De Vries having worked closely with Cameron McVey, known for his work with Massive Attack and Neneh Cherry, both songs carry this legacy; sounding very much like they’re cut from the same cloth as the likes of Neneh Cherry’s “Manchild” and “7 Seconds”, and something like Massive Attack’s “Unfinished Sympathy”. They also sit nicely with “Freak Like Me” - carrying this darkness in their sound, and feeling like such a fusion of different genres that the songs themselves end up being difficult to categorise.

The writing on these songs also goes some way to positioning the Sugababes as different from your regular girl group, once again putting them on par with the Spice Girls and All Saints. Each of the songs on this album exhibit a form of girl power, without an uttering of the term. “Freak Like Me” is a pro sex anthem for the ages, which will always be the jam and always hit; whether you’re listening to Adina Howard’s original or the Sugababes’ mind bending cover which should not have worked as well as it did. “Blue” is about weeding your friend circle once you achieve a certain level of fame, and keeping newcomers at arms length. “Stronger” certainly hits now in 2020 Part II, where many of us have been isolated, alone, and had to reckon with the changes in the world and ourselves - having no choice but to find a way forward and become stronger. And “Just Don’t Need This” is unfortunately still fortunate for one too many women; having to deal with men who can’t keep their hands to themselves and won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. The Sugababes are always at their best when they are singing about very real things, because a major draw of their appeal at this stage in their career was the fact that they seemed like very regular girls who dealt with very regular things.

Whilst the ‘babes used to pride themselves on being a group who was set apart because of their harmonies, their vocals really were nothing special back then. Their harmonies were okay, but not distinct or leaps and bounds above what All Saints or the Spice Girls already done gave. In fact, the Spice Girls were running rings around the Sugababes where harmonies and vocal arrangements were concerned on their final album Forever. The main draw of the group in terms of vocals at this point was Mutya. She runs circles around every single song on this album, and is always the dominant vocal, without even trying. Mutya has a low set voice, which was unconventional for pop, and still kinda is. So she really stands out on songs. But Mutya also has a really nice tone and is smooth with her riffs and runs in a way that Heidi and Keisha (at this point) were not. The vocals on this album are basic. Except for when Mutya is singing. So don’t go expecting any elaborate vocal arrangements or harmonies as tight as Destiny’s Child.

The vocal distribution on songs is pretty even, although Heidi doesn’t give much in the way of ad-libs compared to Keisha and Mutya. In fact, she barely ad-libs at all. She has a nice little moment on “Freak Like Me”, but that’s about it. It’s understandable given that she was still new to the group and perhaps didn’t feel comfortable going off all over songs just yet. There is a definite new girl vibe to Heidi on this album, but she also gets some of the best sections of songs to keep her memorable, so that’s something I guess.

Album review: Sugababes - Angels with Dirty Faces | Random J Pop

Angels with Dirty Faces was a weird album for me. I really wanted to like it far more than I did, because of how much I fell for the Sugababes during One Touch and how good “Freak Like Me” was. The adoration I had for songs like “Stronger” and “Just Don’t Need This” made me go ‘I pretend I do not see it’ to how bad some of the other songs were. The tension between what the label wanted, what the Sugababes wanted, what they both thought the public would want, and what the few songwriters and producers who came over from One Touch wanted, is very evident. The end result is an album that doesn’t really commit to anything or make a strong stance on who the Sugababes actually are - which is so bizarre, given it was so clear on One Touch, and “Freak Like Me” laid that so bare. The issue isn’t so much that the Sugababes were being bent to straight-up pop, but the fact that “Round Round” was really the only great instance of it here which felt like it was made in a vacuum and didn’t account for current trends and was effortlessly cool as a result. Which is why “Round Round” still sounds good to this day, whilst “Angels with Dirty Faces” and “Supernatural” sound dated by comparison.

Based on this album alone, I had no idea where the Sugababes would go for their next album. And whilst I get why Angels with Dirty Faces sounds how it does, I don’t understand why it had to. There’s no focus. It’s like listening to about 4 different albums. There were too many damn cooks in this kitchen all wanting to make something different. But even through the wonky moments, the Sugababes still deliver something that is fun, and the girls never get lost in even the weakest of songs, thanks to their charm and Mutya’s vocals. The moments on this album which are good, are really good, and show promise of what this album could and should have been. But unfortunately, these moments are far too few.

If you’re coming into this album as a fan of pop music with no real attachment to the Sugababes at all, then you’ll probably like this album more than a die-hard fan who lived for One Touch. For all the shit I’ve said, there are only one or two songs on this album that I’d say are flat out garbage. The way I see it, Angels with Dirty Faces is a decent pop album, but an okay Sugababes album from a group who could absolutely do so much better.

VERDICT: Sponsored by Neutrogena

■ Freak Like Me 🔥
■ Blue
■ Round Round 🔥
■ Stronger 🔥
■ Just Don’t Need This 🏆