They've got nicknames. They've got girl power. They've even got their own line of action figures.
What the Spice Girls don't have is flavor.
Ironic, isn't it? After all the interviews in which the group protested that it wasn't prefab, it turns out the Spice Sound is. Even those who actually can hear the difference between Baby Spice and Posh Spice will have a hard time pointing out what's so Spicy about the Spice Girls' third album, "Forever," arriving in stores today.
Sure, the album's sound is slick, soulful and hook-intensive, guaranteed to return the four Spices to the Top-40. But there's something strangely anonymous about the album's sound. Apart from a couple of Cockney raps, the disc could be the work of any well-groomed girl group.
Those current on Spice Girl gossip likely will lay the blame at the feet of Geri "Ginger Spice" Halliwell. Widely described as "the smart Spice" (oxymoronic, isn't it?), Halliwell was rumored to have run the group after its split from manager Simon "Svengali Spice" Fuller.
Halliwell split from the Spice Girls in 1998, embarking on a solo career that has so far produced a lot of ink but no hits (her solo album, 1999's "Schizophonic," was an unmitigated failure). There were rumors that Halliwell would return to the fold; after all, the other Spices also went in for flop solo projects while the group was on hiatus. But no. For "Forever," the group remains a foursome: Victoria "Posh Spice" Beckham; Melanie "Scary Spice" Brown; Emma "Baby Spice" Bunton; and Melanie "Sporty Spice" Chisolm.
Still, the question remains: Where did the flavor go? The logical answer seems to be that it was never there in the first place.
Truth is, the Spice Girls' recipe for success never really called for Ginger -- or any other specific Spice. Instead, it was about being able to sing with a modicum of character and soul, and follow the producers' instructions to the letter.
For most of the group's career, the instructions came from Richard Stannard and Matt Rowe, the team behind "Wannabe;" "When 2 Become 1;" "Never Give Up on the Good Times" and other hits. On a basic level, the Stannard and Rowe approach -- sturdy, sing-along tunes supported by R&B-inflected rhythms and girl-group harmonies -- defined the Spice sound. But apart from the slow-and-sentimental "Goodbye," Stannard and Rowe are absent from the album.
Instead, the bulk of the production is the work of Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins. A pop/R&B hit factory here in the states, Jerkins has generated huge hits for Brandy, Toni Braxton, Destiny's Child and others, and his fingerprints are all over "Forever."
It isn't just that the first voice you hear on the album is his, announcing "Spice Girls, Darkchild, 2000" at the beginning of "Holler." It isn't even that the chorus to that song includes an allusion to the hit he wrote for Destiny's Child, "Say My Name." From the itchy, keyboard-driven pulse of "Tell Me Why" to the harmony vocals in "Get Down with Me," Jerkins uses every tried-and-true gimmick in his arsenal.
They work, too. The Spice Girls have never sounded as funky as they do on this album. Even when the material has almost no rhythm or blues, as on the vaguely Celtic "Let Love Lead the Way," there's a hint of soul in the singing, as when Baby sings counterpoint against the other Spices on the second chorus. Even better, when they're given a melody as substantial as that to "Weekend Love," the four make the most of every phrase and harmony.
To be fair, Jerkins didn't do it all himself -- and not just because two of tracks were by Janet Jackson producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. The four Spices also had input, earning writers' credits on every song (although "Wasting My Time" apparently had no input from Posh).
It's strange, then, that their presence should be so transparent. Apart from "Right Back At Ya," which is about being the Spice Girls, these songs could as easily have been recorded by Destiny's Child, Xscape or any other girl group.
Frankly, "Forever" suggests that the Spice Girls are the musical equivalent of MSG -- which may explain why they give some people a headache.
(Virgin 7243 8 50467)
Sun score: ** 1/2