Rock Steady Label: Interscope Records
It's hard to believe, but just a few months ago No Doubt was on the edge of what every pop band fears most: the Land of Indifference. If a band is loved or hated (take Creed, for example. No, really, take them, they drive me nuts), at least they're talked about and therefore still in the public consciousness. On the other hand, if a band is ignored, they may as well be dead or, worse, British.
SoCal's No Doubt was teetering dangerously close to irrelevance, despite the fact that they a) just released an album, Return of Saturn, 18 months ago, and b) said album had moments of brilliance that their previous record, (and far bigger seller) 1995's Tragic Kingdom, couldn't touch. Such is life in an industry that releases a ridiculous 35,000 albums a year. But thanks to a couple cameos with Moby and Eve by lead singer Gwen Stefani, No Doubt's star is back on the rise, and their new record, Rock Steady, looks to rescue them from the abyss; it's funky, peppy, LA pop run through a Jamaican blender. That it's not their best work is almost irrelevant. It keeps them on the map, and that's all that matters.
The album was recorded in LA, Jamaica and London, which might explain why the album has some of the fattest bass tracks since Dr. Dre and yet also some of the weediest synthesizers since Flesh For Lulu. It starts with a huge bang: "Hella Good" is like "Ring My Bell" remixed by Rob Zombie, with Chic-esque scratch rhythm guitar and a deliciously nasty bass keyboard riff. "Hey Baby" is the leadoff single, produced by reggae legends Sly and Robbie, and it's a killer. Superfly and super funny, it's a girl's perspective on the backstage shenanigans of a male band ("With a stranger in my face who says he knows my mom, and went to my high school"). The slinky "Making Out" looks like another single in waiting, with producer William Orbit's trademark bleeps and blips propelling things along.
The goings from there are perfectly fine, if not stellar. "Don't Let Me Down" sounds like it was lifted from the Better Off Dead soundtrack, thanks to former Cars frontman Ric Ocasek behind the boards (think less "Just What I Needed, "more "Tonight She Comes"), whereas "Detective" has a chorus that is pure Janet Jackson, for better or worse. "Running" sounds like it's supposed to be this album's "Simple Kind of Life," the fantastic single from Return of Saturn, though the song's not half as solid and the production is too mired in 1980s cheese to be taken seriously. "Waiting Room" is an experiment with the once brilliant and eccentric, now just plain loony Prince that, while it doesn't touch his work with Madonna (who Gwen sounds just like on this track), is still intriguing. The pure reggae title track, which closes the album, is just lovely, even if the lyrics are teenager-in-love type prose.
Rock Steady isn't a great record, but at the same time it's not exactly a disappointment either, because the album is indicative of No Doubt's true abilities. The fact is, they're not a great band. They're fun, and they have written some very good tunes, but they're not great. In the end, it's only pop music, and there are far worse things you could be subjecting your eardrums to than this.