We all know the story of Girls Aloud. If you don’t even know who they are, then for the love of God please educate yourself on Youtube or download their greatest hits. Let’s start again. Girls Aloud were formed at the end of 2002 in ropey talent-show sequel “Popstars: The Rivals”. In those days Pop Idol had just created several big stars in its first series, and the year before that, the original “Popstars” series created Hear’Say who had rather less longevity. In fact the bell was tolling for Hear’Say by the time Girls Aloud and One True voice were compiled from assorted boys and girls via a public vote.
Girls Aloud and One True Voice went head-to-head for the Christmas No.1, with a comprehensive victory for the girls. Girls Aloud went on to have multi-platinum albums and 20 consecutive top 10 hits. One True Voice spun off into obscurity. On the flipside of this, the five boys and five girls not selected for the bands were signed up in their own right. The boys formed Phixx, who had minor success in 2004’s bleak pop landscape. One of the girls, Javine, got a solo career off the back of the outrage many felt that she wasn’t picked for Girls Aloud, and also had modest success, finally snuffed out by her disasterous result at 2005’s Eurovision (though it could easily be argued that she was finished long before that).
Via this lengthy back-story, the remaining four girls formed Clea (made from their first initials, ABBA-style), and had the least success of all. Two singles came out in the UK, “Download it” and “Stuck in the middle”, and stalled just outside the top 20. The album was shelved in the UK but saw a release and apparently some success in Russia and Eastern Europe, but I always suspect that’s just one of the “big in Japan” rumours that nobody can back up. If you are reading this in Russia or Eastern Europe and you have ANY idea who these girls are, please leave a comment!!
The singles were pretty good, and I ended up with the album at some point in my life, so I thought I’d finally give it a go.
09 Stuck in the middle – A thunderstorm kicking off a pop song, is there a more dramatic cliche? I love it. This isn’t that bad for all the laboured lyrics about guilt and loving two guys. Their harmonies are undemanding but pleasant, and the production actually comes off with a bit of class. It’s quite chilled out and pleasant, with a nice chorus. I do honestly think it’s a shame that this didn’t find more success as a single, in 2004 certainly it was better than many big hits of the time.
09 The Lie – A cancelled single, but another highlight from this album I think. More morose-sounding production, and these girls can’t stay out of trouble can they? After two-timing in the last song, they’re now lying to their partners. Or maybe admitting it, I guess that’s a little better. Again the production hold this one up, I like the mix of old-fashioned samples, strings and light electronic flourishes. I feel like this whole album shouldn’t be very good, like a cast-off Atomic Kitten album, but this really works for me. Their voices aren’t that distinct from each other, but they cope well with the demands of this undemanding song.
07 Butterflies and Rainbows – Hmm, not sure about this title. I think the ropey expectation of the album is belatedly being met. The lyrics are pretty stupid, the girls just want butterflies and rainbows, but their love interests are bringing dragons and monsters… hmm. It’s a pleasant enough track, and certainly wouldn’t have been out of place when it was written. It’s a very low-budget female singer-songwriter track, I could imagine several vocalists that would have probably had something like this on their albums. It’s pleasant enough but just a bit blahhhhh.
06 First Love – Randomly this has a writing credit by German popstar Sarah Connor. Shame she couldn’t put her name to something a bit more interesting that this pleasant but generic Motown-esque bluesy ballad (if any of those adjectives fit). The chorus is quite nice but honestly this is pretty forgettable.
07 Identity Crisis – It’s an interesting title for an album, but sadly the title track doesn’t quite live up to that promise. The chorus is well put-together, and vaguely memorable, and that production just made me think of it as a VERY diluted version of All Saints’ “Pure Shores”. It’s barely worth considering those two songs in any kind of context though, maybe just forget I said it. The chorus just about saves this from being a Billie Piper album track, but only just.
07 One more try – Afraid things don’t get much more interesting here, but I would like to clarify that most of these tracks are perfectly listenable. These girls don’t have exceptional voices, but their voices blend nicely and are used well. This feels a bit more like an Atomic Kitten album track, which in a sad way is a step in the right direction if this was 2004. This is nice really, I’m struggling to have a strong feeling about it, but it’s certainly as likeable as it is forgettable.
06 Sprung – Oh we are switching it up now, an offbeat sample trying to make it a little cooler. An old trick but often a good one. A bit of a surprise after the string of blandish love songs, but they don’t quite pull off this uneven-sounding track. Did this really have five writers? A bit quirky for its own good, and doesn’t really help out the girls’ voices with its relative lack of melody. The chorus is alright but I’m not really feeling this one.
08 Crush – Oh well, back to the pleasant but disposable love songs. This has a pretty good chorus, to give it credit. The verses are less effective sadly, but that chorus does bring back a little of the magic of their harmonies. They even pull of a sweet little middle-eight, and even thought their voices seem a little powerless this is quite a lovely little pop song.
06 A guy like you – Bongos? Hmm well this doesn’t bode well. I guess they are going for a more edgy sound here, although that’s a pretty laughable approach for one of the most toothless girlbands I’ve heard in a long while. Too many drums, it’s a bit of a mess, and as it was in “Sprung” they seem to forget about the melody. A presumably sexy spoken-word section falls flat, and they aren’t in danger of being mistake for the Sugababes. Presumably that was the point?
10 Download it – Finally a proper single, and a strikingly unusual song to release as a single, let alone a debut single. Sparse production for the verses, with a dramatic swell for the bridges. No idea what this song is about, I think they just wanted to sing about downloading something, so just crammed the phrase into the chorus. The chorus is pretty memorable and pulled off well. Their vocals even get a bit of exercise on some of the bigger notes, and it finishes as a pretty sophisticated and layered pop song. They justified their brief existence with this one, in my opinion.
06 Mind Games – This picks up the baton from “Download it” in some sense, but goes nowhere near the heights of that track. Some dramatic layers of production, and a few nice melodic hooks but that chorus doesn’t really do a lot for me. I guess it’s a nice change from the ballads, but this just misses some key ingredient that made the singles such a pleasure.
06 Pretty little bad girl – Trying to be sexy now, yeaaahhhh, throw some guitars in it, they’re BAD GIRLS! Ho hum … sounds like they are just horny, which isn’t a crime, but I’m not sure how bad they really are. Maybe they had one-too-many Bacardi Breezers and don’t know right from wrong. Either way, ‘rocking out’ isn’t really fooling anyone, especially after they were showing their vulnerable sides for much of the album. Perhaps that’s what the identity crisis is!
In fairness, I wasn’t expecting a lot from this album. After all, it didn’t even get a release in the UK, but that’s no measure of its quality, just its commerical viability. It’s a shame, though at least it was sold somewhere in the world. I guess they were one girlband too many in the pop landscape prowled by Atomic Kitten, Sugababes and their successful counterparts Girls Aloud.
The title fits the album well, since it comes off as a patchwork of diluted versions of popular girlband sounds. I can hear Atomic Kitten, Sugababes, All Saints, even soloists like Delta Goodrem and Billie Piper in the mix somewhere. It’s a decent strategy, but ultimately a flawed one. The album only really shines when they do songs that don’t really sound like anyone else of the time, and these were shrewdly picked as singles. It’s a shame they didn’t quite capture the public’s attention, but they got more chances than many pop bands did, so at least they can be proud of what they achieved.
Keepers for the iPod: Stuck in the middle, The Lie, Crush, Download it