How cool is Gwen Stefani? She's got a chart-topping band with a hot new album, and she's finally engaged to Bush singer Gavin Rossdale after a six-year courtship. Could it be that the domestic, white-picket-fence fantasies she explored on No Doubt's less festive previous effort, Return of Saturn, are coming to fruition? Looks mighty likely. And with a record as groovy as Rock Steady, she's having her cake and eating it too.
The word on the street is that Rock Steady's dance-party vibe was
fostered during nightly aftwhen Gwen sings, "Let's just keep on dancing" on the techno-disco "Hella Good," you can easily picture a late-night dressing room packed with sweaty, boogie-happy revelers. Wondering what else goes down on the road? Well, in "Hey Baby," another hard-hitting dance number, Gwen cleverly describes what it's like to be the only woman in a traveling mob of rowdy dudes: While the boys in the band are "surrounded by the girls with the tank tops and the flirty words," she's rolling her eyes at "a stranger in my face who says he knows my mom and went to my high school." er-.
And then there's l-o-v-e. Not only a party record, Rock Steady is also an open-book testament to Gwen's affection for her British beau. On "Making Out," she misses him and playfully longs for a little lip-lockin'. But during "Underneath It All," Gwen gets a bit more serious, offering the tender sentiment, "You give me the most gorgeous sleep that I've ever had." Is she talking to Gavin on "Don't Let Me Down" when she warns, "Don't blow it, even a little bit, 'cause now you're all mine"? Could be -- it never hurts to remind your rock-star boyfriend that he's on a short leash.
Musically, No Doubt is very successfully weaving some different sounds into its new songs, namely modern electronica and early-'80s new wave (the latter courtesy of the Cars' Ric Ocasek, who co-produced two tracks). But the band hasn't abandoned the Jamaican riddims that used to be its bread and butter. Not even close -- some of Rock Steady was actually recorded in Jamaica (reportedly on a 'steadying' diet of Red Stripe lager). Though the brisk ska beats that once defined the No Doubt sound have slowed a bit, there's a warm island breeze blowing through songs like "Underneath It All," "Start the Fire" and the LP's title track. (By the way, 'rock steady' is also the name of a Jamaican musical style that preceded the development of reggae. It's a slower version of ska in which dancers shift their weight from foot to foot while shaking their shoulders to the beat.)
Ultimately, Rock Steady plays like a Gwen-guided tour through all sorts of feel-good textures, with a few gentler numbers offsetting the dance tracks. There's even a funky collaboration ("Waiting Room") with an unpronounceable symbol who we're once again allowed to call Prince. When you get the Purple One to sing on your record, you know things are falling into place. An engagement ring might not be far behind...
In a nutshell: If you can't hire No Doubt to play your party, at least be sure to pop in the CD