No Doubt

The advance poop had it that Rock Steady was to be No Doubt's return to fun, a reaction to the serioso and largely forgotten (quick, name the single!) Return of Saturn. Not exactly.

Gwen Stefani as a performer is best summed up in that image from the "Don't Speak" video where she's all gym-rat sleek and doing a vigorous air kick. Whether channeling Geddy Lee (like on breakthrough rocker "Just a Girl") or Madonna (on breakthrough ballad "Don't Speak"), Stefani's vibe is pure work it, baby. And Rock Steady -- with its endless reps of peppy, 21st-century dance pop -- frequently sounds like a harsh training regimen.

Far from fun, the album's lyrical mood is dark, worried and unsettled, but not quite artful enough to be unsettling, which would have made for a more interesting record. For those who've watched Stefani grow up in public, the evidence couldn't be plainer (or more disheartening): Gavin Rossdale is a dawg. There are seven songs in a row that, multiple producers aside (Nelly Hooper, Sly and Robbie, William Orbit and Ric Ocasek all check in), all focus on a tense, infidelity-drenched relationship through which our sweetheart Gwen fights to keep her dignity and sanity.

While it's a miracle of camaraderie that Stefani didn't abandon the boys in the band to the fates of 'Til Tuesday and 10,000 Maniacs about 18 months after Tragic Kingdom hit, she might as well have, their royalty checks notwithstanding. This is a pure modern electro-pop record, with little sign of a rock band's presence. And when they need a classically reggae bass line on "Underneath It All," co-producer Robbie Shakespeare is their ringer.

Alas, there are only smidgens of the bizarre, brain-rubbing noises, swooshes and bleeps in the mix that make modern R&B and dance music so rewarding for potheads. There are some songs here -- like "Running" and "Don't Let Me Down" -- that are high-clarity, well-cut pop diamonds. But overall there's too much Madonna, not enough Geddy Lee.

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Brian Doherty