No Doubt: Rock Steady

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No Doubt

Album: Rock Steady
Label: Interscope

It took five years for No Doubt to release a follow-up to its best-selling 1995 breakthrough Tragic Kingdom, and the result was Return Of Saturn, a massively hyped, modestly successful, infuriatingly whiny collection of odes to female weakness. The new Rock Steady took far less time and involved far less fanfare, and the result is everything its predecessor wasn't: bouncy, joyful, carefree, and mostly engaging. In spite of its formidable stable of co-producers—Sly & Robbie, Prince, Nellee Hooper, William Ørbit, and Ric Ocasek, all of whom put their distinct stamp on the material—the album feels less tentative, and never seems to bear the weight of expectations the way its predecessor did. That said, Rock Steady is far from epoch-making: Singer Gwen Stefani's words don't get much more profound than "Let's just keep on dancin'" ("Hella Good"), and her lovesickness doesn't get much more involved than "I anticipate us making out" ("Making Out"). Aside from a few excursions into low-impact ska and dancehall, the disc adheres pretty closely to lightweight pop formula, with a few cloying missteps like the grating single "Hey Baby" along the way. After the teeth-gnashingly insecure moaning of Return Of Saturn, such a marginally frothy record is a welcome change of pace, but at the end of the day, it's still just a marginally frothy record. More than anything, Rock Steady sounds like the album Britney Spears should have (and could have) made in 2001: Instead of bemoaning her success and lamenting her loss of independence, Spears could have gone Stefani's route and sung a batch of giddily lighthearted odes to boys. Next to this year's Britney and last year's Return Of Saturn, the result, like Rock Steady, would have sounded downright empowering.