ithout much hesitation, I’d say that about 50% of the stuff that’s played on mainstream radio these days is good. Great even. I’m a total sucker for NSYNC and Nelly’s version of “Girlfriend” and Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” spent a good month or so stuck in my head. However, I’d also have to say that probably less than 5% is excellent. Thank God for No Doubt. Since the breakthrough of Tragic Kingdom, they’ve established themselves as one of the best damn radio singles bands around. When a No Doubt song comes on the radio, it’s almost instantly recognizable. Gwen Stefani’s voice stands out from the wimpy, moany singers like Britney and Mandy, and is rougher than most of the super-slick R&B divas. The melodies are always infectious, and they sound great coming out of shity speakers.
Rock Steady isn’t much of a departure for No Doubt. They’re still making albums of pop songs that straddle styles and genres. They’re still putting Gwen center stage. They did however, take a slightly different approach to recording this album, then they have in the past. Recorded largely in Jamaica, the album has a more laid back feeling than the bitterness of Return to Saturn and the hyperactive pace of Tragic Kingdom. They also worked with a different producer for almost every song. Nelle Hooper, Sly and Robbie, William Orbit, Ric Ocasek, and Prince all add their own touch to their respective songs. It’s a great approach. It works. Unfortunately, the big weakness is the songs. About a third of the songs are pretty weak. Another third is decent, and the remaining third are excellent.
Disappointingly, one of the weaker songs is the Prince collaboration. Co-written by Prince, “Waiting Room” sounds like Prince’s attempt to cash in on the Neptunes and Timbaland sound. A minimal, jerky beat, over a sparse backing track. The melody is pleasant enough, but it falls flat. Both Prince and Stefani’s vocal talents are wasted. Prince sounds like he’s holding back, and Stefani sounds like she’s trying to be Prince. Ouch. It hurts. As does the first single, “Hey Baby”. Gwen kind of raps. They lyrics are full of obvious double entendres, “and the boys get the girls in the back.” Yeah. Yuck. Bounty Killer’s guest rap, and Sly and Robbie’s deep, booming production save this song from being thin, but it’s still inane and unengaging.
The second single, “Hella Good” redeems the misstep of “Hey Baby”. It is a dirty disco tune with an anthemic rock chorus. It begins with a simple steady beat, as Stefani coos her way around plenty of cheesy keyboard bleeps and space sweeps. The chorus is fuzzy, big, and damn, it feels good. Ten overdubbed Gwens urge, “You’ve got me feelin’ hella good/ So lets just keep on dancin’.” Who am I to argue?
No Doubt has successfully aped the New Wave sound in the past, but the two Ric Ocasek produced numbers here are just, well, for lack of a better word, sucky. It’s as if Ric put a piece of paper in front of the band that had a formula for “New Wave” on it. “Beepy keyboards?” Check. “Three note bassline?” Check. “Big guitars on the chorus?” Check. Both “Don’t Let Me Down” and “Platinum Blonde Life” are hummable tunes. They’re also almost instantly forgettable.
Gwen Stefani has really matured as a singer on this album. Gone are the baby voices and squeals of the past. She’s more assured now. Her voice floats along with the songs, instead of pounding it’s way front and center. It’s still strong enough to be the focus of the songs. The new Gwen voice really shines on “Underneath It All”. She lets her voice ride gently on top of the melody, pushed along by the gentle steel drums in the background. Very smooth. Now if she’d only mature as a lyricist. For the most part, I can forgive the stupid lyrics of “Hey Baby” and “Hella Good”. Mostly because, they’re supposed to be dumbed down and party ready. However, when Gwen sings, “Run, running all the time/ Running to the future/ with you right by my side.” and, “Running, running as fast as we can/ Do you think we’ll make it?/ Running, running keep holding my hand/ So we don’t get separated” over an overly precious twinkling keyboard line, something in me cringes and I want to punch puppies. It’s sophomoric, and I had hoped she would be past that now. But hey, I suppose that this is the kind of song that makes Gwen so popular with the pre-teen girlies.
Title track, “Rock Steady” ends the album on it’s strongest note. Gwen harmonizes with herself as bassist Tony Kanal lays down a relaxed beat worthy of the song’s name. Little, quirky acid bleeps and moans fade in and out. It’s all rhythm and Gwen’s perfect four part harmonies on the chorus. It's simply a beautiful little song.
Rock Steady sounds like a band with growing pains. The members are obviously talented musicians and songwriters, but they seem a bit confused about their place in the world of mainstream rock and roll. I imagine they’ll grow into those britches soon. They’ll either accept the roll of “singles band” or go all Radiohead on us and make an album of avant-jazz-electro-acid-funk-polka. Either way, I bet we’ll still get our fair share of catchy tunes to sing along with on the radio.
Reviewed by: Colleen Delaney
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01