The American people didn’t take too long to get bored with the ska boom of 1996, which came and went even faster than ska booms usually do. But we still haven’t gotten over No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani, who lingers around the radio like the last of the hot-pink rock chicks. Stefani wears her all-American vulnerabilities and anxieties in public not because it’s a fashionably alienated pose but because she’s vulnerable and anxious. She’s a pure product of the American girl factory: blunt and guileless in detailing the ways that femininity has screwed her up and screwed her over. She’s not coy about her pleasures, either; she’s a loudmouth party girl in the grand Eighties lineage of Pat Benatar, Dale Bozzio and Debbie Gibson. Her let’s-go enthusiasm makes her an excellent sound effect on other people’s records: First, she added the right tone of gum-snapping Valley Girl sass to Moby’s “South Side,” and then she blew ya mind with Eve in “Let Me Blow Ya Mind,” which showed just how much trouble a hip-hop girl and a New Wave girl can get each other into if the beat is right.
It was only a matter of time before Miss G and the boys in her band addressed the obvious question: Why can’t they have this much fun on their own records? And so they finally do on Rock Steady, No Doubt’s fifth album. They bash away at reggae and funk and New Wave party grooves with a light touch that was sorely missing on 2000’s Return of Saturn. On that album, No Doubt tried to show how mature they could be, and unlike so many other bands with similar goals, they worked on some music that was actually worth the trouble: “Simple Kind of Life” was a flat-out excellent song, with massive folk-rock guitars ringing out as Stefani sang about her pushing-thirty issues sincerely enough to make you squirm. But while the album was heartfelt and subtle, it was a little overcooked. Rock Steady is looser and friskier, recorded in L.A., London and Kingston, Jamaica, among other places, with a revolving-door of producers: reggae vets Sly and Robbie, dance-hall hitmakers Steely and Clevie, techno geezer William Orbit, U.K. hip-hop avatar Nellee Hooper, New Wave oracle Ric Ocasek and some guy named Prince.
As you’d expect from titles like “Hella Good,” “Hey Baby” and “Start the Fire,” the music on Rock Steady is simple and propulsive, which in the time-honored rock & roll manner forces the songs to improve; chord changes and turns of phrase that would have obfuscated themselves to death on Return of Saturn have no choice here but to get hot or go home. “Don’t Let Me Down” is the obvious jewel, the song that breaks away from the pack like “Spiderwebs” on Tragic Kingdom or “Simple Kind of Life” on Return of Saturn. It zooms on jerky Devo rhythms and juicy guitar hooks, along with a synth solo straight from the Cars’ “Just What I Needed” — Ocasek’s production jobs rarely, if ever, sound anything like his old band, but he’s definitely on some serious Candy-O shit here. “Hey Baby” cranks up the dance-hall-style party beats, with guest toasting from Bounty Killer. “Platinum Blonde Life” takes Elastica to funk school, while the gorgeous ballad “Running” kicks off with a two-finger synth riff that’ll keep you awake nights trying to figure out which Yaz or Erasure or early Depeche Mode song it came from.
“Waiting Room” is a surprisingly juicy duet with Prince, who wanted to pay Stefani back for singing on his Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic album; it proves that whatever the little dude has lost as a producer and songwriter — which is just about everything, sad to say — he’s still some singer. There are a few lame tracks for sure on Rock Steady (“In My Head,” “Making Out”), and the extremely annoying “Underneath It All” reheats the stalest ska cliches while it revisits the question of whether Gavin Rossdale is really the right guy for Stefani, a topic that even Rossdale has to be way sick of by now (especially Rossdale, come to think of it). But it’s impressive to hear No Doubt summon the musical imagination to transcend the formula that used to imprison them — even if you liked “Just a Girl,” “Don’t Speak” and “Spiderwebs” in 1996, you wouldn’t have guessed they had “Running” or “Don’t Let Me Down” in them. And despite all the predictions that Stefani was a goner for a solo career, she still stands by her band, living the pop life while the boys take care of essential rock-star business, up to and including dangling naked from chandeliers at award-show parties. On Rock Steady, No Doubt get their yin and yang in balance, and after the finely wrought turmoil of Return of Saturn, it sounds like a relief.