Review Summary: It's the Xenomania show!
Oh, what you wouldn't give to be a member of Xenomania. Quite aside from the fact that they're probably insanely rich by this point (they're the brains behind Cher's "Believe", several Sugababes singles, and they've written for both Minogue sisters) - as the songwriters for Girls Aloud, they currently occupy an ideal slot within the music industry. Not only will basically anything they do sell, but they're also exempt from public criticism when things go badly. Clearly they've taken stock of that by this point, because Girls Aloud are almost an irrelevance on this album. This is the Xenomania show - spurred on by their relative anonymity, and the star power Girls Aloud bring to the table, they've decided now is the time to try and assert their artistic vision/piss about (delete as applicable).
A note on the girls, though. If singing glove puppets are what you're after, then Nadine, Cheryl, Kimberley, Sarah, and Nicola are absolutely perfect. Visually, they just look
like a band - they're similar enough to give off the impression of solidarity, but different for people to individually label them 'the ginger one', 'the Irish one with the legs', and 'the one that beats up black people in toilets'. As singers, they also toe the line very well - they can sing, sure, in the sense that they can hold a tune nicely and they're pleasant to listen to. Yet, they don't overstep the line the way a Christina Aguilera, a Mariah Carey, or an Amy Winehouse might - no member of Girls Aloud has the inclination to try and stamp their own imprint on a song. As a songwriter, that'd probably be pretty irritating, and there's every chance it'd ruin things. After all, look at how much better Mariah Carey's music was on The Emancipation of Mimi
, when she stopped pissing about with her voice as much as usual.
So the relationship here is as clear as it could possibly be - Xenomania write the songs (they're responsible for almost every Girls Aloud song ever recorded, including each of their 18 singles up to and including "Control of the Knife"), Girls Aloud sing them and don't ask questions. The reason that Tangled Up
has more spectacular successes and failures than any other Girls Aloud album is because Xenomania are starting to upset that balance. And they start by coming up one of the most mental pop songs in recent memory.
"Sexy! No No No..." is quite brilliant, but it's incredibly jarring on first listen just because it's so far removed from what we're meant to expect from pop. The intro - hushed synth pads with enough effects on the vocals to stop them sounding even human - gives way to the kind of 80s rock guitars Xenomania are so fond of and vocals that that are even MORE removed from the natural sound of the girl's voices (I think this part is Sarah, but it could honestly be any of them). It's not until 1:14 that you hear anything resembling an actual tune sung by an actual person. Okay, it's a great song, so let's not make too much of the complaints, but the production overshadows the intended stars of the show to the point where this almost sounds like sabotage. It's indicative of the theme of the album - Xenomania audibly muscling GA out of the picture. They might as well rename themselves Egomania.
There's another great moment created by Egomania here - "What You Crying For" is just about the most tuneful thing here, and is as diplomatic as Tangled Up
gets. It's still the music that makes it stand out, though. Cheryl Cole (nee Tweedy) described this as 'a garage-sounding track', but in reality it's in exactly the same sonic territory as the pop/DnB hybrid that gave Bomfunk MCs a massive worldwide hit with "Freestyler". Oh, and it starts off with some U2-inspired guitar, for no discernible reason. It's great anyway. The other highlight is album opener and second single "Call The Shots", which takes it queues from 90s pop-house (as do "Close To Love", "Girl Overboard", and "Control of the Knife"), but weaves a bruised, unusually subtle pop song from it. Consider a companion piece of Leona Lewis' "Bleeding Love" if you wish, because it's a fitting comparison.
Yet, some of these tracks simply sound tossed off, like Egomania were spending more time on the sound and production than they were on the songs themselves. "Can't Speak French" is the last Goldfrapp album welded to some guitars stolen from any generic Latin pop act, and any interest that generates is blunted by the uninspired melody. Ditto "I'm Falling", which swipes its melody from Ugly Kid Joe, and "Crocodile Tears", which boasts an acoustic guitar intro that sounds like a Metallica ballad. Still, 'tossed off' is better than 'absolute toss', and there are two complete and utter stinkers here. Music in 2007 just doesn't get worse than "Fling", with its awful sub-Moloko intro and its insistence on rhyming 'fling baby' with both 'ding-a-ling baby' and 'bling baby'. Beyond that, the song sees Girls Aloud practically rapping, which is the most awful idea I've encountered in a long while. The only reason it isn't more embarrassing than Madonna's rapping on "American Life" is that Girls Aloud don't take themselves as seriously as Her Madge. "Damn" falls entirely flat too - the elements that make up this song blend about as well as honey and vinegar. "Black Jacks" admittedly isn't as bad as that, but it suffers the same fate.
It goes without saying that this album isn't terrible - with the amount of money riding on it, there's no way it'd have been released if that was the case. Lessons were undoubtedly learnt in the pop world with Spice Girls, and Girls Aloud remain very unlikely to release a stinker like Forever
. But, in their quest to assert dominance over the members of Girls Aloud, the businessmen involved in funding the album, and the listener, Xenomania have managed only to craft an album that offers wild shifts in both quality and sonics, which makes things pretty confusing for the average listener. For some pop bands, that'd be a improvement, but Girls Aloud and Xenomania both already have What Will The Neighbours Say"
in their catalogue - a pop album that was consistent, fun, easy to listen to, and home to "Love Machine", their greatest song. Some might look upon Tangled Up
as an admirable failure, or claim it as the best Xenomania/GA album by default because it's the most 'honest' or 'experimental' or whatever, but the fact is that, on balance, this has to be considered the worst Girls Aloud album yet.