Review Summary: For Tomorrow: A Guide to Contemporary British Music, 1988-2013 (Part 84)
Reality show survivors Girls Aloud’s sophomore album, What Will the Neighbors Say?
, makes the same mistake their debut album made (and a mistake common to a lot of pop albums) in that it opens with two singles so huge it throws down an impossible gauntlet for the rest of the album, resulting in a sort of continued atrophy as the album gets further and further from that impossible high. As a result, What Will the Neighbors Say?
becomes a trudge after it runs out of singles. Even when it does produce good non-singles, their too distinctively non-singles, even good filler is filler. Granted, Girls Aloud were a ruthlessly focused singles act that made the top 10 their top priority but by 2004 their rivals the Sugababes had figured out how to integrate big singles into a great album (2003’s Three
) while Girls Aloud either hadn’t yet figured it out or it just wasn’t a priority.
While placing the two big singles may hurt the album as a whole, it sure as hell makes for a thrilling one-two punch. From the very beginning, songwriting/production team Xenomania realized Girls Aloud were more than capable to handle anything they threw at them, capably tackling Xenomania’s wildest productions with aplomb. So for What Will the Neighbors Say?
they kick things off with the crushing stadium synths of “The Show”. The reason the Xenomania/Girls Aloud pairing works so exceedingly well is the total lack of ego in both parties. Girls Aloud knew they were being handed top tier material and were talented enough to know not to get in the way of it. So while less savvy vocalists might have mucked up “The Show” with needless vocal runs, Girls Aloud work as an even unit to deliver the track’s bucket full of hooks, resulting in a sublime slice of electro-pop.
But as good as “The Show” is, “Love Machine” is, somehow, an impossibly huge jump from a top tier Girls Aloud single to possibly their best song ever. The key here is momentum; Xenomania take The Smiths’ “Rusholme Ruffians” and give it a swift kick in the ass, shoveling so much coal in the engine that “Love Machine” sounds delightfully out of control, traveling forth on a shuffle train snare and twanging guitar that melds modern pop dynamics with a 50s era sock hop. Atop that, well, you know the drill by now, hooks bay-bee
, hooks. Clever lyrics abound, most prominently the exemplary “we’re gift wrapped kitty cats/We’re only turning into tigers when we gotta fight back”, delivered with a knowing rat-tat-tat cadence that becomes a delirious double-time for, draining into a pre-chorus, then bursting upwards for the massive chorus.
“I’ll Stand By You” is a decent ballad but coming in after that opening two, it feels like running into a brick wall. The album doesn’t die on the line here and is actually stronger as a whole than their debut but still doesn’t feel like more than a vehicle for the singles. There are strong tracks here, weary morning after ballad “Deadlines & Diets” along with the uptempo duo “Graffiti My Soul” and “Real Life” are worthy deep cuts. While What Will the Neighbors Say?
doesn’t quite make the case for Girls Aloud as more than a singles act yet, it does make another case for their legacy as one of the best singles act in British pop history and guarantee they would have a fantastic greatest hits at some point.