No Doubt are easy to like. The cheerful, telegenic face of California ska-punk, they were energetic enough for moshers and tuneful enough for MTV, a combination that catapulted the quintet into the Top 5 with 1995s Tragic Kingdom. A message recently posted on a fan site hailed them for providing something for everyone. This might be praise for a department store, but for a band?
And so on to Rock Steady, No Doubts fifth album. It, too, offers something for everyone and ends up an intermittently engaging but overall shapeless collection. Drawing on everything from funk to dancehall, its the product of happy-go-lucky musicians who once cavorted in bad track suits but now spend their days commuting between London, Jamaica and Los Angeles seeking the wisdom of expensive studio geeks. Unfortunately, something seems to have gone missing at the airport.
Rock Steadys predecessor, 2000s turgid Return of Saturn, was an album that sounded like it was recorded by a band in the grip of uncertainty. Simple Kind of Life and Suspension Without Suspense suggested an uneasiness about celebrity (hardly suprising, given the groups sudden MTV-assisted leap up the charts), while Marry Me found singer Gwen Stefani wrestling with a femininity more complex than that described in the 1996 hit Just a Girl. Saturn charted well, but sold a mere fraction of Tragic Kingdoms 15 million.
The problem of being a cult act pushed into the limelight hasnt gone away judging from the Web, many fans seem more concerned with whether Stefani is about to marry her longtime boyfriend, Bushs Gavin Rossdale, than with what her bands new music sounds like.
But No Doubt are certainly hiding it better. In contrast to Return of Saturns navel-gazing Ex-Girlfriend, Rock Steady gets off to a blazing start with Hella Good (cowritten with hypertalented hip-hop duo the Neptunes) its a piece of sharp, syncopated synth-pop that resembles Was Not Was, Timbaland, Fishbone and Afrika Bambaataa all getting their freak on at once.
Apart from the Neptunes intervention, the best songs lean on the bands love of the new wave/synth sound of the early 80s. Dont Let Me Down weaves its chugging guitars around a sinuous, summery keyboard refrain that wouldnt sound out of place on a Dr. Dre production; Waiting Room, an odd Prince collaboration, boasts a febrile electronic pulse and eel-like bass line. And then theres Running, a Jewel-esque curiosity conjured from fragile synths and a deceptively understated vocal (think a happier Depeche Mode). At such times, No Doubt sound just as they should: like a twenty-first-century Blondie.
If only there were more such moments. But instead of keeping their focus on robust melodies and intriguing arrangements, No Doubt attempt to broaden their appeal with a watered-down approximation of artistic range. Hey Baby, a misguided attempt at dancehall, is typical. Translating an edgy style even Jamaican artists regularly fail to master into something thats bland enough to play at the Gap, the track leaves hired gun Bounty Killer an MC who at his best is raucous, passionate and gleefully offensive sounding, well, bored.
Of course, Stefani still has a wonderful voice, as her terrific duet with Eve on Let Me Blow Ya Mind recently reminded us, and the band can lay down a decidedly funkadelic groove. But No Doubt have inexplicably hidden their natural verve behind a crowd of disinterested guest vocalists and past-it producers, Dave Stewart and Sly & Robbie among them. As improvements go, its akin to sending Kate Moss to a plastic surgeon for implants and collagen jabs.
Yet thats merely a symptom of Rock Steadys real problem. Theres no need for No Doubt to go jetting off to Jamaica for extra real-ness the ska part of their sound was just fine before. But in their need to come up with something for everyone, No Doubt stumble on their own insecurity and end up delivering an album thats far less likeable than it should have been.