Boys! In all their permutations (boyfriends, friends, dads) they provide fodder and consternation for gals everywhere. The opposite sex and all their shortcomings is a well-stocked hunting ground for ska/punk kitten Gwen Stefani. She's either whining about 'em or pining for 'em - but the bottom line is we have to hear about it on No Doubt's new album 'Rock Steady'.
Despite having been on the Southern California scene since 1986, No Doubt did not skank on through to the stardom side till 1995's benchmark 'Tragic Kingdom'. A Snickers bar of sounds - loaded with chunky poppy goodness, fat filled hooks and lyrics crunching with bitterness. The caramel thread was 'Don't Speak' (inspired by the break-up of Stefani and bass player Tony Kanal) which brought all the emotive pain of losing love without stooping to power ballad schlock. The band were then left the daunting task of making a follow-up to an album that sold 10 million in the US alone.
Cue the lukewarm 'Return of Saturn' and now - nearly two years later - 'Rock Steady'. Not that they have been out of the limelight. Gwen, whose shagability could swing straight women to bat for their own team, did two well-chosen cameos (Moby and Eve) in addition to her high profile relationship with Gavin Rossdale of the persistently awful band Bush.
'Rock Steady' continues the ska-punk separation started on 'Return' by simmering all the songs in different sauces. A whopping six production teams cook up this broth, resulting in a hotch-potch of '80s electro-pop, spliffy reggae and dancehall rump-shakers. It is hard to tell where No Doubt starts and the producers end.
The single 'Hey Baby' - a mix of retro synth dance, Sly & Robbie production and Bounty Killer's toasting - bursts with Batman punches. 'Underneath It All' is a turquoise-hued ode to the fact that most blokes, despite all the moronic things they do, are really worth the effort. It has a sun-baked ragga beat that Sly & Robbie can do in their sleep, but keeps its modern edge thanks to Lady Saw's cooling rap.
Nice to hear Ric Ocasek has not moved a millimetre from his trademark Cars production sound which features on 'Don't Let Me Down'. This throwback - which could easily slot into the Breakfast Club soundtrack - warns the boyfriend that one more screw-up is his one-way ticket to singlesville. 'Start The Fire', a dancehall-tinged smoothie celebrates morning after make-up sex.
Yes, there are some clunkers on show as well. The lyrically dreadful 'Making Out' is scarily reminiscent of Rockwell's 80s hit 'Somebody's Watching Me'. And the petite purveyor of purple perv-dom (FKA Prince) puts his two cents worth in with 'Waiting Room' - surely a 'Purple Rain' outtake. By the way Prince, we get it, you're sexy. Move on.
All this results in an album sitting somewhere between good and pretty good. But No Doubt, like so many other bands, suffer the curse of their early work being their best. And even with so many producers attempting to steer this bus along the superstar highway, they end up in a better-than-most parking lot
albeit beautified by a Gwen Stefani billboard.