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Dec. 18, 2006

"Escape" while you can from Stefani's latest

by Johanna Gretschel, Online Managing Editor
Once upon a time, Gwen Stefani was one cool chick. She was blue-haired sometimes, fearless all the time and sang girl-power anthems while fronting as the only female in third-wave ska band No Doubt. However, upon reaching "senior citizen" status as a 30-something, Stefani felt compelled to record "Love.Angel.Music.Baby.," throwing her rock cred out the window in favor of synth-heavy Madonna-wannabe singles tailor-made for repeat on 99.5 FM. Released Dec. 15, Stefani's sophomore solo album, "The Sweet Escape," is recorded in a similar vein to "L.A.M.B.," failing to introduce anything new and causing listeners to feel nostalgic for the good old "Tragic Kingdom," No Doubt's 1995 breakthrough hit album.

Stefani's yodeling voice kicks off "Wind It Up," the album's first single, a hodgepodge of hip-hop and Swedish mountaineer singing with an overbearing beat more likely to give listeners headaches than to inspire them to dance. The track derives from 1965's "The Sound of Music" by sampling lyrics along with yodeling from "Lonely Goatherd." Stefani was similarly inspired by a musical on her 2004 debut solo album, "Love.Angel.Music.Baby.," in "Rich Girl," which reworked "If I Were a Rich Man," from "Fiddler on the Roof."

It is clear that Stefani wants to include a variety of music styles, but her genre-bending is more annoying than pleasing to the ear as "The Sweet Escape" sporadically switches from one genre to the next without warning. The title track is a bouncy oldies-inspired romp that sounds like it came straight out of "High School Musical," aided by guest rapper Akon's sing-a-long style "whoo-hoo" in the background. "The Sweet Escape" is Stefani's newfound signature brand of sugary pop at its finest (read: most commercial-friendly and brain-numbing), sure to entrance preadolescents while simultaneously stealing their IQ points. Directly following is "Orange County Girl," where Stefani cannot decide whether to sing or rap. The bland track boasts such uninspired lyrics as "I'm just an Orange County girl/Living in an extraordinary world."

"Now That You Got It" is a hip-hop leaning track with enough high-powered hooks to be the "The Sweet Escape" equivalent of "L.A.M.B."'s "Hollaback Girl." The funky piano melodies coupled with a booming baseline make the track an unbalanced, spastic dance track. It almost works. However, Stefani's rap solo obnoxiously repeats chants of "Now that I got it/What you gonna do about it" and blares sirens, revealing the track's true nature as a clichéd rap song.

"Fluorescent" is an ode to the 1980s in more ways than its title: the synthesized beats and breathy vocals scream Madonna. For those who need the influence of Stefani's idol spelled out for them, Stefani references Madonna by throwing in the line "Dressing up in your love is a dangerous thing." On her 1984 album, "Like a Virgin," Madonna sang "Gonna dress you up in my love" on her hit "Dress You Up." Stefani's resulting electro-computer pop is a little too slow to groove to, but fun nonetheless.

"Yummy," featuring the Neptunes producer and hip-hop group N.E.R.D. lead singer Pharrell Williams in an appearance notable only for his repetition of the N-word, is perhaps the strangest song on the album. The track sounds like a creepy, convoluted remix of the Ying Yang Twins' "Wait (The Whisper Song)" with Stefani seductively breathing lyrics like "Go to Kinko's and Xerox me" and "I know you've been waiting but I've been off making babies/And like a chef making donuts and pastries," against a rhythmic bongo beat.

Most every song on "The Sweet Escape" is either incoherent like "Yummy" or banal fluff like "U Started It." "U Started It" highlights the weaknesses in Stefani's voice as she struggles through submissive lyrics like "You know, what I'm like/I give in, even though you started it" while attempting vocal histrionics best left to someone who can actually pull them off: namely, not her. The elevator music does not do much to distract listeners from Stefani's wobbly vocals, and is reminiscent of "The Sims" computer game.

"Early Winter," "4 In the Morning" and "Wonderful Life" are relatively simple, no-frills, No Doubt-style guitar ballads that manage to convey more emotion than the entirety of the album. "Wonderful Life," the best track of the three, takes Stefani's voice for its limited range and works with it instead of attempting to stretch it out. The result is a moving, melancholic combination of Stefani's throaty voice against a classical piano and pulsing percussion beat.

If only Stefani had lent the same personality to the rest of the emotionless, superficial tracks, she may have been onto something. Instead, listeners are left hungry for something more filling than the empty calories of "The Sweet Escape."

"The Sweet Escape" has a Parental Advisory for profanity and songs dealing with sexual subject matter, and can be found in area stores now.



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