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Still kicking
No Doubt rock steady

BY SEAN RICHARDSON

It’s been five years since No Doubt took radio hostage with the blockbuster Tragic Kingdom (Interscope), and chances are a Technicolor image of the band circa ’96 still burns bright in the memories of most pop fans: the peppy ska-punk crossover act with the girl singer and that really icky monster ballad. But with the video-game explosion and the giant dancehall chorus that kick off "Hey Baby," the first single from their fifth and latest album, Rock Steady (Interscope), the group are back in a whole new light. They’re jammin’ like never before, aiming directly for the top of the charts with a sprightly Christina-Aguilera-meets-Shaggy pop-reggae confection and ace Jamaican toaster Bounty Killer in tow.

"I’m the kind of girl that hangs with the guys/Like a fly on the wall with my secret eyes," sings frontwoman Gwen Stefani at the beginning of the song’s first verse, summing up her pop appeal once and for all and checking her angst at the door as she heads for the dance floor. Gwen’s always been a party girl at heart, but this was the year she finally let her hair down. First there was her guest shot on Moby’s bleak but still body-rockin’ "South Side," a surprise hit that appealed to young, old, hip, and middle-of-the-road audiences alike. Even better was the chorus she took on the Eve smash "Let Me Blow Ya Mind," cooing suggestively over Dr. Dre’s clavinet stabs while her partner shrugged off any concerns of a sophomore slump. With two club anthems like those under her belt, going dancehall was only the next logical step.

Gwen’s good-time-girl makeover and No Doubt’s self-proclaimed party album couldn’t have come at a better time for the band, who showed signs of floundering after their mid-’90s breakthrough: last year’s Return of Saturn (Interscope), the follow-up to Tragic Kingdom, took two years to make and didn’t live up to commercial expectations. But they’re a resilient bunch, as their dramatic turn on VH1’s Behind the Music proved. After weathering the suicide of original frontman John Spence, the youthful Anaheim punk band got signed at the turn of the ’90s and released two albums that went nowhere. During the recording of Tragic Kingdom — ostensibly their last chance at making it — Gwen was forced to deal with both the end of her long-term relationship with bassist Tony Kanal and the departure of her brother Eric, who played keyboards and wrote much of the band’s music.

Tragic Kingdom broke slowly. The angst-ridden singles "Just a Girl" and "Spiderwebs" found favor with the alternative crowd, landing the band at the forefront of the ska-punk revival that briefly took the all-ages scene by storm. But it was the heartbreaking ballad "Don’t Speak," a disarmingly candid letter from a spurned Gwen to ex-lover Tony, that lifted them to the next level. Back then, many rock types dismissed the song as adult-contemporary schlock; now, however, its lovelorn confessionalism sounds more like a precursor to mainstream emo, especially given the group’s suburban punk origins and the increasingly loose definition of the term.

When No Doubt returned to the spotlight last year, Gwen had a new rock boyfriend to sing about, Bush frontman Gavin Rossdale, and a new, largely ska-free album made with superproducer Glen Ballard. Return of Saturn didn’t create much excitement in the rock world, but the easygoing "Simple Kind of Life" did become a modest pop hit. That tune’s seriousness felt strained, though, and Gwen’s joyless ruminations on settling down and getting married provided none of the catharsis that "Don’t Speak" did. Thank God somebody realized it was time for her to do a hip-hop cameo.

The fun is back on Rock Steady (the title comes from the name of the late-’60s Jamaican pop style that forged a bridge between ska and reggae), which uses dancehall as the starting point for its genre-blurring album-length dance party. The band bring in the kind of big names you’d expect to find on an ’N Sync album: former Bjšrk collaborator Nellee Hooper racks up the most production credits; esteemed Jamaican production duos Sly & Robbie and Steely & Clevie handle the reggae tracks. The group also employ both teen-pop/R&B royalty the Neptunes and new-wave legend Ric Ocasek (key contributors to the latest albums by Britney Spears and Weezer, respectively). On paper, that makes this a cross between the two most rockin’ pop albums of the year.

If the Neptunes and Ocasek had split production duties half and half, No Doubt might have outdone Britney and Weezer combined; as it is, they come pretty close. The Neptunes song, "Hella Good," was actually produced by Hooper, but the funky duo’s sonic fingerprints are all over it, from the heavy-breathing percussion trick also heard on Britney’s "I’m a Slave 4 U" to the insistent "Billie Jean" drumbeat. "Come here a little closer/’Cause I wanna see you baby real close up," sings Gwen at the end of the first verse, throwing in a seductive "get over here" for good measure. She may have 10 years on Britney, but by the sound of this track, she still knows how to work the dance floor.

The band are of necessity marginalized on the dance-pop numbers; in particular, guitarist Tom Dumont is relegated to playing bit parts on much of the disc. But they did write almost all of the music, and they get one exhilarating rock moment in the sun on the Ocasek-produced "Don’t Let Me Down." They go from Jamaica and James Brown to Weezer-style sugar rock without missing a beat, and the ex-Car sprinkles an electric rainbow of retro synth sweetener on top. Gwen picks up the new-wave vibe and runs with it, singing throwaway sweet nothings to the beat of Blondie’s "One Way or Another." It’s disappointing, then, the way she grumps out on the other Ocasek track, "Platinum Blonde Life," which sounds just as great but doesn’t chug along quite as propulsively.

As she did on Return of Saturn, Gwen sends much of Rock Steady out to Gavin — only this time she’s far more affectionate and a little less neurotic about their relationship. Long-distance love can really bring a girl down, though, and she gets a couple of songs out of the alternating frustration and anticipation of carrying on their LA-London affair. "So I’m just kicking it/I’m counting the days/I hardly can wait for us to hang out," she sings on the discofied "Making Out," appreciating her boy’s flowers and letters but noting that it "just ain’t good enough." She’s in a worse place on "In My Head": "Long distance, don’t talk about/Ex-girlfriends, don’t talk about/You without me, don’t talk about/The past." At this point, the couple’s jet-set relationship has been played out on record to a gleefully voyeuristic degree: all of No Doubt met up at Hooper’s London studio during the recording so the two could be together, and Gavin even named the latest Bush album, Golden State (Interscope), after Gwen’s California home.

The most playful peek into their love life is the feel-good dancehall track "Start the Fire," which tones down the bawdiness of "Hey Baby" a little but still works up a mighty sex groove. Seems the happy couple got in a little tiff before going to sleep one night, and Gwen’s lying anxiously in bed the next morning, waiting for her baby to kiss and make up: "One more famous night to remember/Let’s laugh at my silly temper/Now let’s burn the morning sweetly/Get over here now and complete me." She’s feeling hella good again, only this time she’s looking for something deeper than a carefree dance-floor hook-up.

The band cap off their all-star guest list with a late-album songwriting/production appearance by Prince, who also contributes keyboards and backing vocals to the typically eccentric "Waiting Room." With its chopped-up rhythms and intricate vocal harmonies, this is the one tune that seems out of place on the album — if only because the one place where it would seem right is on a Prince album. Gwen and the Purple One get at each other’s strengths on the lyric, an agonized plea for attention from a potential lover who could care less. What’s more, the beat is close enough to the Fugazi classic of the same name that there’s hope these lapsed punks might unveil a surprise medley on stage one night.

No Doubt have made a career of overachieving: nerdy Orange County punks with bad fashion sense and a lifelong nostalgia for ’80s rock aren’t supposed to become diamond-selling transcontinental pop stars. Among their peers, only the Offspring have come as far, and they rarely venture out of the rock ghetto. No Doubt, on the other hand, are proving themselves the rare rock-crossover type able to embrace the Top 40 mainstream with both comfort and eagerness. When they decide to co-opt dance pop, they go all out; they’re not stupid enough to be self-conscious about, say, whether their reggae is authentic enough to make the grade. And they’ve got an insecure girl next door on the mike who’s just as likely to sing about her personal neuroses as she is to lead a hot sex jam.

"A real love survives/A rock-steady vibe," the reggae mantra that begins and ends the disc, is ostensibly about Gwen and Gavin. But it could just as easily be about how far the band have come in their 15 years together, and where they’re going from here.

Issue Date: December 20 - 27, 2001

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