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Sugababes straightforwardly titled third release may have lacked a single quite as striking as "Freak Like Me," the tremendous electro-clash/mash-up cash-in smash from their breakthrough sophomore set, Angels with Dirty Faces, but otherwise it improves on that album in many respects. Following the same essential template -- tuneful, R&B-inflected dance-pop with fresh-sounding but accessible productions, along with a healthy smattering of big droopy ballads -- with an expanded stylistic range, Three boasts a sonic approach both lusher and more intricately detailed, and, most significantly, stronger songwriting almost across the board, much of it contributed at least in part by the Babes themselves. And if it was less revelatory than "Freak," this album's chart-topping lead single/opener "Hole in the Head" was no less enjoyable -- a slice of bouncy, slightly off-kilter up-tempo pop reminiscent of Angels' second number one single, "Round Round." Both were produced and co-written by Xenomania, fresh from their career-making work on Girls Aloud's debut album -- and so were several of Three's other highlights, including the playfully funky "Twisted," and the ruminative, woozily floaty "Situation's Heavy." Elsewhere, Pete Craigie and Guy Sigsworth conjure up blankets of electronic gloss to swathe the barnstorming robo-pop of "Whatever Makes You Happy," the Eastern-tinged quasi-Diwali of "Million Different Ways," and the beautiful, throbbing slow-burner "Maya," a metaphysical missive to a lost friend that reflects: "If this universe is really shrinking/we'll be together in time." Then there are the ballads, arguably Sugababes' strongest suit: Three has no less than four of them (five if you include the less formally classicist "Maya") evenly spaced throughout the album, of which the obvious standout is the pitch-perfect "Caught in a Moment," a stirring, string-laden monolith of melody. It may seem incongruous for such unabashed sentimentality and frankly conventional arrangements to coexist with electronic dance-pop so thoroughly modern in sound and sensibility -- and indeed it's easy to imagine listeners attracted by one aspect of Sugababes' pop-craft being turned off by the other. But ultimately they are two sides of a coin -- timeless if sudsy ballads and flashy novelty dance tunes -- both very much in keeping with the great interpretive pop tradition, of which Sugababes are among our most consummate and sophisticated modern exponents.

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