Gwen Stefani is the perfect girl. At once eternally self-confident and vulnerable, playful and tough, Stefani brings all the confusing (and often paradoxical) characteristics of femininity into one package. The girls love her, the boys love her. Rock fans love her, pop fans love her. Her recent collaborations with Moby and Eve just further prove Stefani's wide-ranging appeal. Everyone loves Gwen, and everyone should. No Doubt is one of the few bands everyone can love without any sort of effort or even any guilt.
As the follow-up to 2000's Return of Saturn, which took some unfair critical hits for being about Stefani's unabashed desire for domesticity (perhaps the world just wasn't ready for rock songs about marriage and family), Rock Steady seems to be something of a concession to their earlier days of straightforward party-rock. Rock Steady is just solid fun -- no angsty ballads about marriage here -- and that's the main component of the album's appeal. While it doesn't completely abandon introspection, gone is the longing and wistfulness. No matter your thoughts on Return of Saturn, the connection you'll make with Rock Steady is instantaneous.
But unlike Return of Saturn's tight-knit cohesiveness that almost bordered on "concept" (thanks to the dead-on production of Glen Ballard), the diverse half-dozen producers picked for Rock Steady, including Nellee Hooper, Ric Ocasek, William Orbit, and Prince, do bring their respective styles of Rock Steady and, consequently, the album jumps around quite a bit. From the hip-hop snarls of "Detective" to the blatant new wave beats of "Don't Let Me Down", there is little to unite these songs stylistically. While the effect isn't jarring, the songs definitely seem like ones that were pieced together from different recording sessions rather than ones that were conceived in unison.
It is to No Doubt's credit, though, that they manage to keep the album together with little more than their collective personalities. All these songs sound like No Doubt just because you can automatically tell that they are. Stefani may be continually at the forefront of the band, but the group has stayed together because they all have such an instinct for each other. Stefani's vocals are at turns seductive and innocent depending on the song (or moment in the song), while Tony Kanal's bass growls and throbs along with Adrian Young's fierce drum work and Tom Dumont's understated guitars. No Doubt sounds like a band, and this gives Rock Steady an unexpected and much needed strength.
While the electronic loops of "Making Out" (William Orbit's track), and even the guest contributions of Bounty Killer and Lady Saw, show the obvious influence of Stefani's solo collaborations, No Doubt's re-embrace of the reggae/ska sound is all personal. The band's desire to reconnect with its musical beginnings shows how far it has come since its days as a local Southern California band. Still, No Doubt still doesn't want to be pegged as any one thing on Rock Steady, and the band's willingness to explore different genres and styles shows a surprising savvy. Its fan base is already there, and the band moves its sound forward just enough to not be alienating.
Although some of the songs here tend to fall flat, such as "Running", a music-box ballad that would be more worthy of some Britney clone, or the sloppy dancehall sound of "Underneath It All", No Doubt isn't afraid of working with new ideas, even if they happen to be the wrong ones. "Waiting Room", the collaboration with Prince, is perhaps the unanticipated standout of Rock Steady because of this. With its sultry beats and Stefani's downright adorable Prince impression, it is the song that breaks away from the traditional No Doubt sound the most while still maintaining what makes No Doubt such a dynamic band. It is eager to take chances if they will in any way aid its identity as a band.
Stefani's lyrics have an immediacy to them that sometimes seem like just a means to an end for the music. When she sings "I tried to think about rainbows when it gets bad" on "In My Head", it is a bit hard not to cringe, but there's a spontaneity to the lyrics here that is hard to ignore. On "Don't Let Me Down", when she sings "'Cause now you're all mine/ Don't you forget it/ Don't let me down", there's an intensity in her voice that borders between joy and viciousness. There is still something very open and honest about Rock Steady. Even if Stefani isn't pouring out her heart about wanting to settle down, the emotions are still there.
Rock Steady may never fully find a unifying voice as an album, but that's simple to overlook. Refusing to settle into one definition, No Doubt is vibrant and full of life here, even if the heights it reaches for aren't always achieved. Gwen Stefani's sparkling charisma cannot be disregarded, and no matter what else, when she sings on the opening track "You got me felling hella good", it's pretty easy just to nod in agreement and keep on listening.