Unsteady effort from Stefani is not a great `Escape'

Album review

December 06, 2006|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

Gwen Stefani so wants to be the new Madonna.

She wants to be more musically audacious than the original Material Girl. But the former No Doubt focal point has neither the smarts nor the charisma to pull it off.

On The Sweet Escape, Stefani's second solo album, her forced, fashion-obsessed club-queen persona is more superficial than the one presented on Love. Angel. Music. Baby., her multiplatinum 2004 debut. Where the first album's quirkiness felt inspired and even fun at times, the new CD -- out this week -- is too self-conscious and frustratingly uneven. Like the flashy aviator shades and bleached-blond pageboy wig Stefani sports on the cover, The Sweet Escape comes off as an obvious disguise. What the pop star is hiding is anybody's guess. But because much of her new music is so tired, cliched and anti-climactic, no one but rabid fans should care.

After the immediate successes of L.A.M.B. and the extravagant tour that followed it, Stefani took about a year off to have a baby. But she apparently didn't want to stay away too long, for fear another shallow pop hottie (Fergie, perhaps?) would steal her "shine." As Stefani says in "Yummy," one of Escape's lamest moments, "I came back for my spotlight/for her spotlight."

Never much of a vocalist, the California native mostly chants and attempts to rap through the 12-track set. On "Wind It Up," Stefani reprises the nonsensical jump-rope-style lines and marching band beat that made "Hollaback Girl" the silliest smash of 2005. But where that single was infectious despite its inanity, "Wind It Up" is just annoying and clumsy with its gratuitous sample from The Sound of Music's "The Lonely Goatherd." And because it is such an obvious retread of "Hollaback Girl," the song should be embarrassing for Stefani.

But there's no shame in her game. It seems the last thing she wants to be is profound or brilliantly radical. And that's all good. But after just two albums, it's a bit too early in her solo career to start repeating past successes.

Stefani fares better when she's not trying so hard to be a "down street chick." On "Early Winter," a synth-based midtempo number slightly reminiscent of Madonna circa 1984's Like a Virgin, the pop star croons sweetly about a dying love affair. It's one of The Sweet Escape's few good moments.

Another is "Don't Get It Twisted," which brings back the ska-new wave blend that was successful for Stefani when she fronted No Doubt. (It's no wonder this track recalls her more interesting No Doubt days -- former bandmate Tony Kanal oversaw it.) "U Started It" evokes '80s Prince at his most lilting. Of the five tracks the producing team of the Neptunes contributed, it's a standout.

Unfortunately, The Sweet Escape's many awkward moments overshadow the few decent ones. Stefani stumbles as she tries to be daring and cool. No matter how many disguises she tries, she's no music chameleon.


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