The history of British girl group Sugababes is a complex yet interesting story of revolving band members, competing band names, and battles for naming rights. The group was created by a collaboration between All Saints manager Ron Tom and First Access Entertainment founder Sarah Stennant, who found Mutya Buena and Siobhán Donaghy from a showcase when they were thirteen. Buena invited friend Keisha Buchanan and thus the Sugababies were born. Renamed to the more mature-sounding Sugababes, they released album One Touch on London Records in 2000 to rave reviews. Shortly after, Donaghy left the band because of personal differences. They then left London Records and signed with Island Records, and picked up a new member in Heidi Range.
With a new line-up, new label and new producers to work with, Sugababes developed their second album, Angels With Dirty Faces, working with producers such as Lucas Secon and Xenomania to add a more electronic sound to their previous R&B/pop style from One Touch. The result is probably one of the best pop albums of the early ’00s.
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Take the lead single from the album, ‘Freak Like Me’ and compare it to the last single from One Touch, ‘Soul Sound’, only seven months before. A chilled out soul/R&B jam to close out an album cycle, compared to an electro-pop banger in ‘Freak Like Me’. A cover of the Adina Howard song from 1995, it was a mash-up of that song and the Gary Numan song ‘Are “Friends” Electric?’. The Sugababes only recorded it due to producer Richard X not getting permission to use Howard’s vocals in the mash-up for commercial release. It became the group’s first number one single and kicked-off their new era.
This electronic sound reverberates throughout Angels With Dirty Faces, blending well with the R&B and pop stylings that One Touch had. Second track ‘Blue’ is an R&B pop song that fits in line with the popular trending sound of pop in the early ’00s. The very garage-pop like single ‘Round Round” also hit number one, with its synth riffs over electronic drums and a music video that sees the members singing in a circle surrounded by circular wind blowing debris whilst onlookers stand around them.
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In the ongoing narrative of British pop music, it’s worth noting that this was in the August of 2002. The R&B sounds dictate the electronic dance-pop elements on the album. But the elements of the electronic pop sound used by Xenomania would begin to slowly morph and realign in future albums once Xenomania’s writing style changed after a certain reality TV girl group arrived on the pop scene at the end of that year. This isn’t an article about that group. But imagine ‘Round Round’ with added guitars controlling the main melody throughout the song, and you have a song that sounds like it’s… well, underneath the ground. It’s like Xenomania were working and fine-tuning their craft.
The album then dips its toes into R&B again with ‘Stronger’, a low-key almost-a-ballad about loneliness, then kicks into tempo again with ‘Supernatural’, highlighting the nice interplay between the members, with Range and Buena tag-teaming their vocals in the verses before the chorus kicks in. Somehow managing to create an R & B song with electronic music sounds that sounds… groovy.
Title track ‘Angels With Dirty Faces’ ended up being on the Powerpuff Girls Movie soundtrack to the point that the music video had the three members drawn in the style of said characters. Aside from that, it doesn’t really relate to The Powerpuff Girls, but has a low synth riff that goes through the majority of the song that is really catchy and will stay in your head once you’ve noticed it’s there. The distinct voices of all three of them all have their moments in the sun in this one, the switching between the three working really well.
The second half of the album is where perhaps things stumble a little. ‘Virgin Sexy’ is a decent track if perhaps the ideas feel as if they have already been played before earlier in the album. But it leads up to ‘Shape’, which samples (and features) guest vocals from Sting, sampling his ‘Shape of My Heart’. It’s a single that received mixed reviews and you can hear why, as it feels a little separate from the album, and Sting’s vocals feel so out of place amongst the edgier youthful R&B pop going around. It didn’t help that the same sample was used a few weeks later with Craig David’s ‘Rise and Fall’, which had Sting record new vocals and appear in the video. It’s the one song that doesn’t hit the marks of the others.
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The final run of songs end the album well though, with ‘Switch’ bringing back the electronic experimentation of brief sounds to create a great song that propels through its run time. The closer ‘More Than A Million Miles’ feels like a great way to cap off an album, feeling like it’s paying tribute to the era of One Touch. With one track left, ‘Breath Easy – Acoustic Jam’ has an encore feeling to it, alongside the single-take recording vibe it has. It’s a nice little coda to the album that showcases the voices of the Sugababes, and acts as an interesting bridge to ‘Freak Like Me’, should you wish to repeat the album.
Debates rage online about the different eras of Sugababes throughout their run, but the peak of the creativity appears during the Mutya-Keisha-Heidi era alongside the first of three very strong albums. Angels With Dirty Faces acts as a nice soft-reboot of a group starting to come into their own, and becoming one of the biggest names in UK pop during the 2000s.