Exposed navels, bleached blondes, three guys and a cheeky charismatic lead singer are usually the images that come to mind when describing the Southern California quartet No Doubt. Now with that, add a seasoning of Caribbean style rhythms and catchy hooks to get the band”s latest offering, Rock Steady. The foursome”s fifth studio longplayer is a collection of delectable island-splashed pop with dance club appeal.
Always the explorationists, the group takes a new creative step in their sound and music. Released only a year after their 2000 smash Return To Saturn, the boys and girl of No Doubt fall into no particular formulaic pattern. Rather than boring its listeners by treading the same musical ground of past hit albums, the band expands and further defines its own unique brand of So Cal ska.
Innovating instead of reduplicating, Rock Steady takes chances and experiments with new soundscapes. The album takes its cue from dancehall-reggae, hip hop and new wave, never juxtaposing but intermixing exploring their influences in the genres like never before.
Songs indicative of this newfound exploration include the lead single, “Hey Baby,” the dance numbers “Hella Good” and “Start The Fire” and the retro-pop of “Underneath It All,” which harks back to the second wave ska of The Specials.
Working with a mix of producers ranging from hip-hop virtuosos the Neptunes (Mystikal, Kelis), Nelle Hooper (U2, Bjrk), reggae duo Sly & Robbie and former Cars frontman Ric Ocasek, who provides the songs “Making Out” and “In My Head,” the album is musically eclectic while managing to stay conceptually cohesive.
Vocally, it”s still Gwen”s show, but the album offers one noteworthy guest appearance. The artist once again known as Prince, a long time No Doubt collaborator who offered his services for the group”s last LP and various B-sides, reappears with “Waiting Room,” a tribal, funk-laced duet. On a majority of the album, Stefani”s vocals are strong and assured accentuating nicely with her band”s sound.
Lyrically, the songwriting is less confessional and regret-oriented due in large part to No Doubt”s decision to include new writers. You won”t find a syrupy ballad in the vein of “Don”t Speak” or “Simple Kind Of Life” here the vibe of Rock Steady is contextually mid-tempo with emphasis on bass speaker approval dealing with everything from raucous fans to the typical Stefani templates of longing love and bedazzlement. All night parties and good-times seem to be the principal theme of the group”s dancehall tinged melodies and upbeat subject matter.
Rock Steady after all, is a celebration of No Doubt”s influences and appreciations combined with a forward-thinking inimitability. Though inventive, their native So Cal punk origins are still visible. While other members of the ska-punk community opt for re-creation, No Doubt continually pushes the supposed limitations of the genre and gerrymanders its boundaries.