By: Eric Greenwood
No Doubt"s fourth album, Rock Steady, is a rare example of mainstream pop music that doesn"t make me want to vomit blood. Before you get your holier-than-thou indie rock panties in a wad and scream that No Doubt sucks, give Rock Steady at least a perfunctory chance. Yes, of course, it"s geared up for Top Forty charting, but it"s also unabashedly catchy. The band is so gushingly sincere it"s almost embarrassing, which makes it hard to hate. Sure, there is a hokey element that you either have to accept or learn to ignore, but it"s a whole lot easier to swallow when someone like Gwen Stefani is the mouthpiece. And, anyway, No Doubt is practically a cartoon, but pop music this irresistible doesn"t happen every day.
As someone who loathed No Doubt until its fourth single off Tragic Kingdom, "Sunday Morning", I was relieved that the band had eliminated any trace of ska from its sound on the retro-experimental follow up, Return Of Saturn. In a bizarre case of bad timing or poor promotion, Return Of Saturn wasn"t the worthy successor to a career-making, multi-platinum hit like Tragic Kingdom, commercially. Musically, it far surpassed its predecessor, showing that No Doubt had more up its sleeve than lite-rock ballads and Orange County high school ska-pop. It was the best new wave album that Blondie never made.
Cashing in on the massive success that Gwen Stefani has had on duets with Moby and Eve since Return Of Saturn stiffed, No Doubt has learned from its mistakes. Regrouping much faster this time (eighteen months as opposed to five years), Rock Steady covers every commercial facet the band could possibly tap into, ranging from pop to reggae to disco to soul. This is either a testament to the band"s versatility or a desperate attempt to regain lost footing in the charts. It"s probably equal parts of both, but the versatility will outweigh any cheap chart dreams in the long run.
With an arsenal of top producers and mixers, No Doubt skitters across genres like dilettantes in the studio for the first time. Nellee Hooper should get most of the credit for the band"s sonic blossoming. The first single "Hey Baby" is a love-it-or-hate-it studio concoction full of multiple overdubs and sonic trickery. As evidenced by the band"s tepid performance of it on Saturday Night Live, the song doesn"t lend itself well to a live interpretation, but Interscope probably wouldn"t have let them play anything else. Stefani"s sulky-girl stage presence more than made up for it, though.
Titling the album Rock Steady is more than a little misleading. The reggae-dancehall-Jamaican influence is negligible at best. Sure, it creeps up here and there with Sly and Robbie producing, but the overwhelming majority of the album is pure pop. The sultry disco funk of "Hella Good" firmly cements Stefani"s status as candy-coated second-generation new wave goddess (with much help from her heavy breathing in the background). The song is a slick mix of Roxy Music, The Gap Band, and modern R&B with hooks galore. Just try not to tap your feet when it"s on.
With a few middling ballads like "Underneath It All" and "Running", Rock Steady, at times, feels like it"s sinking fast, but smart stylish pop like "Making Out" and "Detective" keep it afloat. The quirky "In My Head" may be an open letter to Stefani"s fianc", Bush"s Gavin Rossdale, but the music is smart and surprisingly experimental with it"s dark and paranoid melodies. From the opening riff of "Platinum Blonde Life" it"s obvious that Ric Ocasek was behind the boards. The Cars-like introduction explodes into typical alternative rock fare, which would blend into the woodwork without Stefani"s girlish wail.
No Doubt is a good mainstream pop band, which is a dying breed. Pop bands don"t really thrive commercially like they did in the 1980"s. You"re either a "vocal group" or a solo artist these days. "Bands" are for the alternative market, so No Doubt is kind of an anomaly. Rock Steady is frivolous pop music, yes. But it"s good frivolous pop music.