2006 / Music

Review: Gwen Stefani’s New Album Basks In Pop Glamour

No Doubt Singer Releases Second Solo Disc

As a solo artist, No Doubt singer Gwen Stefani takes the approach of a good hostess: She wants to fill you up with goodies to keep you comfortable and happy.

Photo: Interscope Records

Photo: Interscope Records

Stefani’s solo turn began two years ago and since then, has thoroughly blotted out the ska and skate-punk influences that she popularized with her old band. Now that she’s alone in the spotlight, Stefani has chosen to target her new songs even more explicitly for the pop charts. She tries to accomplish this by appealing to the People magazine audience, who she believes mostly want light and danceable singles with only a fashionable dash of edge to it.

Stefani’s new solo album, “The Sweet Escape,” seeks to sweeten the deal by thoroughly incorporating some Hollywood glamour and pop-star cliche to the formula. The final result is a record that signals the completion of Stefani’s transition from mere rock coquette to a superstar-in-the-making and a muse capable of enlisting and then selling what her all-star producers bring to the recording console.

Furthermore, “The Sweet Escape” is a virtual death certificate for No Doubt. It is so wrapped up in Stefani’s new mystique, it seems impossible that Stefani will ever go back to the band for anything more than the periodic reunion.

This has been the turn of events that music industry and perhaps Stefani herself have wanted since No Doubt first landed on MTV’s heavy rotation in 1995. Sure, No Doubt toyed with the idea of Stefani becoming the band’s central focus in the video for their mega-hit, “Don’t Speak,” but special attention and praise have always been lavished on her. Cute, style-conscious and non-threatening, Stefani happily became a fixture on red carpets and quickly underwent a “Rocky III”-style makeover, from surf-punk chick to pop starlet.

Now free of her bandmates, Stefani has gone further, seeking to let everyone appreciate her new image as the ghetto-fabulous star and fashion icon that she truly is. She has transformed herself into a new model Madonna, but one with some shreds of indie cred because she finds inspiration in the New Wave era and can discern between the Specials and Fishbone.

Stefani’s first solo disc, 2004’s “Love. Angel. Music. Baby.,” featured a true dream team of producers and collaborators — Dr. Dre, Dallas Austin, the Neptunes, Andre 3000 of Outkast, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and Mark “Spike” Stent, among others — but the end product was too uneven to yield “Thriller”-like results.

“The Sweet Escape” is similarly a collection of fun-sounding, could-be singles, but benefits from having fewer, competing musical aesthetics. The only producing holdovers are the Neptunes (whose Pharrell makes a guest appearance), British hitmaker Nellee Hooper and Stefani’s No Doubt bandmate Tony Kanal. (Stent does mix many of the new cuts.) The songs share a common modernist and poppy slant while encompassing plenty of Generation Y-safe styles like ’80s synthesizer prom anthems, straight club hip-hop jams, neo-dancehall ditties and electro-dance tracks.

The song that towers above them all and also has the greatest crossover potential is “Early Winter.” The song starts by nicking the piercing guitar chord from the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ minor hit “This Is The Place,” but eases into a midtempo, keyboard-drenched torch song perfectly suited to be on “The Breakfest Club” soundtrack. Stefani’s vocal range is notoriously limited, but you would never know it here. For the song’s breakdown, she even sings an abbreviated scale but that and her always-bankable, baby-talk timbre blends perfectly with the song’s theme of a love cut short.

Stefani’s singing is consistently strong throughout the album, but not even her sassiness and sense of showmanship can salvage the embarrassing rapping that she attempts on “Now That You Got It” and “Yummy.” Both tracks are spectacularly Missy Elliot-esque, post-modernistic dance cuts, but seem better suited to tested MCs who have a sense of flow and don’t sound so comically perky. In fact, this highlights what could be the record’s only real weakness. Some songs seem like tracks mass-produced for any rapper looking to rhyme about going clubbing. Stefani just called each producer at the right time and had the amateurish but familiar lyrics about venturing into the latest Studio 54s.

Not surprising, the Kanal-produced tracks — “Fluorescent,” “4 In The Morning” and “Don’t Get It Twisted” — seem the most complimentary to Stefani’s personal style. The song, “4 In The Morning,” has Stefani crooning about relationship troubles to the sounds of faux strings and a heartbeat, danceable rhythm. “Don’t Get It Twisted” is a tasty, futuristic dancehall sequel to No Doubt’s last huge single, “Hey Baby,” that refers to Stefani’s dramas about getting pregnant. “Fluorescent” combines Beck’s space-age take on funk from his “Midnite Vultures” album and New Wave synthesizer solos.

The Neptunes join the record’s ’80s-celebratory mood with “U Started It,” where in a move that might make P. Diddy green with envy, the track showcases a chorus based on the melody of the Police’s “Every Breathe You Take,” but without outright sampling the cut. This musical adoration of the ’80s can be heard in Stefani’s lyrics. She occasionally delves into personal issues but, like most of the hits of that era, she has an unmistakable cheerfulness. All her sad stories end in smiles.

And happy listeners are what Stefani wants. Work and school might be mundane. Children cry, prices go up and salaries flatline. The world might be turned upside down and millions are dying from poverty, war and disease. But, when you seek refuge from it all, “The Sweet Escape” is the ideal accompaniment to our ability to seclude ourselves. Like a good hostess, she us feel right at home.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2006 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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