Gwen Stefani: The Sweet Escape

Love. Angel. Music. Baby, Part Two: Yodel-lay, yodel-lay, yodel-low!

Gwen Stefani

The Sweet Escape

Label: Interscope
US Release Date: 2006-12-05
UK Release Date: 2006-12-04

So check this out. My friends don't like Gwen Stefani's The Sweet Escape -- and it's my fault. How'd that happen?

Actually, I know how. Earlier this year, my friends asked me to recommend music for their collections. My ear was hot, propelling me into a winning streak of picks, starting with Nino Moschella's The Fix, Open Door's So Close to Beautiful, and Amel Larrieux's Morning. My friends were loving it, even the skeptical ones who grudgingly admitted I was right about Pink's I'm Not Dead and Justin Timberlake's FutureSex/LoveSounds and they've been cranking Pink and Justin in secret.

Don't get cocky, I told myself. But I didn't heed this advice one fateful afternoon when a friend said, "Hey, I need a pick. It would be a gift for somebody. Any ideas?"

I should've said, "I got nothin' right now," or offered to mull it over -- anything. Instead, I said, "That new Gwen Stefani should be out in December."

If this had been a sit-com, you would've seen a mushroom cloud accompanied by Stefani's first single, "Wind It Up", going, "Yodel-lay, yodel-lay, yodel-low!"

When I heard the album, I wanted to love it, but couldn't hide my disappointment. I knew what was coming next. My friends started calling me with jokes like, "Yo, Q, did you download that Stefani ringtone -- the one that yodels?" One guy throws up the Black Power fist when he sees me, and says, "Yeah, playa! Free the Harajuku Girls!" Then there's the incessant, "You know Sebastian Bach sang 'Hollaback Girl' on an episode of The Gilmore Girls, right?"

I need new friends.

So, besides vanity, where did I go wrong? Well, it basically comes down to this: I assumed Stefani's approach to her solo debut, Love.Angel.Music.Baby, was a one shot deal, and any follow-up would necessarily explore different musical terrain. One listen to The Sweet Escape and I knew I couldn't have been more wrong. But I didn't make my assumption because I disliked L.A.M.B. (the album, not the clothing line) -- in fact, I really dug that album. L.A.M.B. was a snappy, fun listen, brimming with attitude and bubbly '80s pop and new-wave, although it wasn't nearly as "experimental" or "fresh" as we made it out to be. It was, nevertheless, different from her work with No Doubt.

Where No-Doubt-era Stefani had edge, Doubt-less Stefani has mostly been glam, from L.A.M.B.'s strangely sublime and surreal album cover, to songs like "Rich Girl", "Cool", and "Luxurious". And while most people define L.A.M.B. by "Hollaback Girl", I believe that last tune, "Luxurious", holds the key, with its generous helping of the Isley Brothers' "Between the Sheets" as its backdrop. "Luxurious" indicates Stefani's nod to the musical past, not to mention the gusto with which she places her influences at the forefront. "I love the '70s and '80s," she seems to say. "It was a fun time and I wanna have fun. Don't over-think it."

While comparisons to Madonna and her "material girl" legacy typically open the analysis for L.A.M.B., I see more appropriate connections to the Go-Go's, Siouxsie Sioux & the Banshees, Cyndi Lauper, and Toni Basil (Stefani's "Hollaback Girl" is a throwback to Basil's "Hey Mickey", right down to the cheerleading motif). I assumed Stefani's rich-girl glamour was merely a thinly veiled cultural comment on how such a peculiar time period could produce such regal music -- after all, she's recalling an era that gave us a Queen, a King of Pop, a Prince, a Madonna, and a Boss. L.A.M.B., then, was part parody and part tribute.

Maybe I was over-thinking it. Still, L.A.M.B.'s statement pretty much nailed it for me. There wasn't anything left for Stefani to mine from the '70s and '80s.


Well, here comes The Sweet Escape, arguing otherwise. The new album is a sequel -- L.A.M.B.: Reloaded, you might say -- and it ought to have an acronym for a title too, like E.W.E., as in Everybody.Wants.Escapism or, in my case, Escape Wasn't Enjoyable. It's like an episode of ABC's drama Day Break, but instead of watching Taye Diggs scramble to clear himself of the crime he didn't commit and dash to free himself from a bizarre time loop that has him reliving the same day -- over and over again, but with consequences -- The Sweet Escape strives to relive the glory of L.A.M.B. With a yodel ("Wind It Up"), some chants ("Now That You Got It", "Breakin' Up"), and a few real compositions ("Early Winter", "Wonderful Life", "4 in the Morning"), Stefani has us waking up to the same album, just add more rap, a glossy Next-Top-Model-ish photo for the cover, and a few more recent-sounding influences. As she sings in "Early Winter", we seem to be "starting over and over and over again".

Club track "Fluorescent", "Don't Get It Twisted" (with its send-in-the-clowns chorus), and the deliciously percussive "U Started It" -- these could have been outtakes from the L.A.M.B. sessions, with "U Started It" having the most merit. "Wind It Up" might draw comparisons to "Hollaback Girl", or Fergie's "London Bridges", while "Yummy" ("I'm feeling yummy head to toe," Stefani coos, and seems serious about it) strikes me as an imitation of Kelis' "Milkshake", especially in terms of the food imagery and the Neptunes-inspired beat. Likewise, the beat of "Orange County Girl" brings Destiny's Child's "Soldiers" to mind, and when Stefani says, "I'm just an Orange County Girl / Livin' in an extraordinary world", I expect Destiny's trio to jump in with, "Where they at, where they at?"

As for the rapping, there's Pharrell's uninspired cameo in "Yummy", plus some dabbling in other spots by Stefani herself, but I was wondering, "Where the heck is Eve?" After the Eve-Stefani collaborations -- "Let Me Blow Ya Mind" on Eve's Scorpion album and "Rich Girl" on L.A.M.B. -- I thought they had a Michael Jackson-Paul McCartney thing going, like in the days of "Say Say Say" and "The Girl Is Mine". But, as energized as they've sounded together in the past, Eve is a no-show.

L.A.M.B.'s ode to love and racial harmony, "Long Way to Go", featured Andre 3000; here, the doo-wop of The Sweet Escape's title track brings Akon aboard. Despite wasting Akon's talents on background "Woo hoo"s, "Yee hoo"s, and "I want to get away"s, the track works as a feisty sort of apology:

If I could escape, I would, but first of all, let me say

I must apologize for acting stank and treatin' you this way

Cause I've been acting like sour milk fell on the floor

It's your fault you didn't shut the refrigerator

Maybe that's the reason I've been acting so cold

It's an engaging premise, along the lines of Monica's "Don't Take It Personal (Just One of Dem Days)" (from 1995's Miss Thang) and TLC's "Good at Being Bad" (from 1999's Fanmail), the type of song where the lead voice acknowledges being "bad" but nevertheless shrugs off the totality of the blame, essentially saying, "Hey, it's not all my fault -- I'm just being me, what's your excuse?" Outside of this, Escape's songwriting is woefully thin, relying on tedious repetition, as in "Breakin' Up", a dead ringer for a cell phone commercial, or this example from "Now That You Got It":

Now that you got it

What you gon’ do about it

Now that you got it

What you gon’ do about it

Now that you got it

What you gon’ do about it

What you gon’ do about it

What you gon’ do about it

Or, from "Orange County Girl":

And the dream goes...

On and on and on and on

On and on and on and on

On and on and on and on

On and on and on and on

On and on and on and on

On and on and on and on

On and on and on and on

In the face of this, the well-written but bland "Wonderful Life" will likely be hailed as the album's "Purple Rain", its crescendo, with its hopeful and futuristic synth, but my money's on "Early Winter" as the album's highlight. It's the one track I'm absolutely sure I'll be listening to, say, a month from now. Somber and regretful -- and with a real melody -- "Early Winter" recalls the vulnerability of No Doubt's "Don't Speak". See? Stefani doesn't have to "holla back" -- we just need her to let us in a little. Stop talking about winning Grammys or wearing t-shirts with L.A.M.B. across the front. "Early Winter" gets the job done, though it's a rare song that can be described as "vulnerable" while containing lines like, "Why, why do you act so stupid / Why, you know that I’m always right". By contrast, "Yummy" blew it with the lines, "I know you've been waiting / but I've been off making babies" and the bit about coming back for the spotlight. I can live with arrogance, but not the feeling that she's eventually going to say, "Okay, enough about me. Let's talk about you. What do you think about me?"

After all this, I should've learned my lesson about making predictions. But now that everybody's clamoring for a No Doubt reunion, I'd like to see Stefani take a crack at a third solo effort. Based on "U Started It", "Fluorescent", "Early Winter", and "Don't Get It Twisted" (ignoring the chorus), there's hope for a third installment (a trilogy! L.A.M.B.: Revolutions?). Regardless of what happened with The Sweet Escape, I believe Stefani could, with renewed vigor, wow us again. I really do.


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