Not so 'Sweet'

December 4, 2006


The merger of rock or dance-pop with show tunes is never a good thing, and Gwen Stefani has a habit of leaning on the most annoying of them.

The nadir of Stefani's generally awful debut solo album, "Love, Angel, Music, Baby" (2004), came on "Rich Girl," which rewrote "If I Were a Rich Man" from "Fiddler on the Roof." On the follow-up, "The Sweet Escape," the platinum-blond singer turns to an even more horrible, fingernails-on-a-chalkboard ditty.

"Wind It Up" finds Stefani continuing her Kewpie doll coquette routine -- "They like the way we dance, they like the way we work / They like that way that L.A.M.B. is going across my shirt," she trills, slipping in a bit of product placement for her designer fashion line, L.A.M.B. -- over samples of "The Lonely Goatherd" from "The Sound of Music." You know: "High on the hill was a lonely goatherd/ Lay-od-lay-od-lay-he- hoo /... She yodeled back to the lonely goatherd/Lay-od-lay-od-low."

No, it's not as bad as it sounds. It's even worse. But it really doesn't matter: To date, Stefani has sold 26 million albums worldwide with her ska-pop band No Doubt (which she insists is a going concern). She racked up sales of another 7 million for her first solo effort, and "The Sweet Escape" arrives in stores Tuesday as one of the music industry's most eagerly anticipated releases of the busy Christmas shopping season.

"I never intended to do another solo record," Stefani recently told Australia's Daily Telegraph. "[But] I had a couple of amazing leftover tracks from the last one. ... The last one was a total dance record: not serious, very light. This one is way different. The inspiration for this one is 'it doesn't have a direction,' making it very modern."

Well, that's one way to put it. The other is that Stefani and her top-dollar producers -- among them Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo of the Neptunes, who had almost redeemed their dreadful output of late with the new Clipse album; No Doubt bandmate Tony Kanal; Nellee Hooper and Swizz Beatz -- didn't miss a chance to pander to anyone. Thus, we have the aforementioned pseudo-show tune; lame ballads ("In the Morning," "U Started It"); a hidden track with a bullfighter vibe and some synth-driven mope-rock in the form of "Wonderful Life," which features a cameo from a master of the genre, Martin Gore of Depeche Mode.

The album isn't nearly as diverse as Stefani promised, however. For the most part, her vocals continue to sound like Madonna during her early helium-warble years, while the backing tracks are largely generic, overly polished, soulless and mechanical dance grooves. "This sounds like disco Tetris," Stefani chirps in "Yummy," and that may be the best and most concise review anyone could give this album.

"Yummy" also includes another of the disc's numerous plugs for L.A.M.B., as well as an apology for making fans wait all of two years for her second solo release: "I know you've been waiting, but I've been out making babies," Stefani coos, and that points to the disc's most troubling flaw.

Stefani is now a 37-year-old mom -- she and former Bush bandleader Gavin Rossdale gave birth to son Kingston in May -- with increasingly distant but nonetheless genuine roots in punk. Yet instead of exploring either of these legitimate identities in her lyrics, which would be both more honest and more interesting, she persists in playing the role of pre-teen mall-rat Lolita so ubiquitous during the late '90s bubblegum-pop boom.

Even Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera have gotten tired of that act, and it sounds even more ridiculous, played-out and pathetic coming from Stefani, who continues to insist she's just an "Orange County Girl." The routine falls apart, however, when the singer who grew up in the shadows of Disneyland strays from her "I'm just like you" pre-teen posing -- "A lot of things have changed, but I'm mostly the same.../You know I'd pay you just to let me run, dance and sing / I know I'm living the 'E ticket' dream" -- to indulge in self-congratulatory hype and a little more product-plugging.

"Still rollin' 'cause 'The Sound of Music'/I'm nothing better than a great big huge hit," Stefani boasts in the same song. "Pharrell on repeat, make a hurricane in Miami/Working with him, I'm gonna get myself another Grammy/I got the L.A.M.B., and he's rocking the ice creams/Blend it together, something fresh and kinda in-between."

Sorry, Gwen, but this album is about as appealing as a puddle of melted Rocky Road. And if you doubt it, you can just go lay-od-lay-od-lay-he-hoo.