Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Retrospective: Rock Steady • No Doubt

‘Shit. We made a mistake,’ I thought to myself on a Friday night. My husband, a friend, and I stood among a pack of strangers behind an 8-foot crowd control fence, what felt like miles away from a riverside amphitheater stage. We had paid for general admission and received nosebleeds at best, for an artist we went to see mainly due to the close proximity and bottom dollar price bracket. It wasn’t often that our third-tier Midwest city snagged an artist worth mentioning, and tickets were an alluring bargain price. We just wanted to see live music again. Almost an hour later, standing in the very same spot, I regretted having had any regrets. The setlist contained not a single unfamiliar song; many, I could yell word for word alongside the artist on stage. I realized Gwen Stefani is an underappreciated hitmaker, boasting more enduring anthems than I could recount off hand.

Perhaps Gwen Stefani gets forgotten because she is not as dynamic of an entertainer as she attempts to sell herself. She is not the vocalist to invite for a performance of “The Star Spangled Banner.” No matter how many songs that new husband invites her to duet – at least three now, if you haven’t noticed – Stefani isn’t equipped for any straightforward country singing, either. No, Gwen Stefani is at her best as the party’s spiteful ringleader, squared up perfectly for a restless rocker or a pounding hip-hop beat – and for decades, that’s exactly what she provided. In all fairness, both sides of her career (with No Doubt and as a solo star) have been filled with as many blazing comets as pieces of space junk: The first two No Doubt records barely lifted off the ground, and her second solo record was a glorified pile of Love. Angel. Music. Baby. scraps with a few phenomenal singles. But then there’s a record like Rock Steady.

• • •

Following two non-starter releases, No Doubt’s 1995 breakthrough record Tragic Kingdom was one of those rare CD-era albums that spawned more radio sensations than many streaming acts can muster today. A listen to Tragic Kingdom feels like a greatest hits record. Five years stood between it and the band’s follow-up, Return of Saturn. Despite the long percolation period, Saturn felt like a failure – by Tragic Kingdom standards, many albums would. (At the aforementioned concert, Stefani told the crowd that she “hates” the lead single from the album, “Ex-Girlfriend.” In fact, the phrase “puke my guts out” was used to describe it. She performed it anyway.) Just one year later, the band would emerge from a very compact chrysalis: With inspiration from afterparties the band threw in conjunction with Return of Saturn shows, Rock Steady would find Stefani and No Doubt in their most carefree, party hard headspace.

Rock Steady is, plainly put, a weird album. Smashing together genres from across the musical spectrum, it just shouldn’t work. Between the high voltage cross-pollination of rock and dancehall, the album sails listeners into alcoves of unmistakable reggae – a direct descendant of ska, the reason behind No Doubt’s genesis. (It’s not at all a bad thing. Rather, “Underneath It All,” a little tropical breeze of a song, reached the highest chart position of all the hits that No Doubt managed to spin up in just a few years.) Yet it works… and it works really well. Its chaotic mission statement is clear within the first few songs, and if a listener sinks into it, the album’s swings can become pleasantly disorienting as it continues its course. One moment, the band recruits Prince to cram together Boyz II Men-worthy harmonies and crunchy electric guitars on “Waiting Room,” and the next, they deliver a vocal arrangement for the title track that listens like the Andrews Sisters’ new groove.

Now, hold up. How’d we get to the Andrews Sisters from “Hella Good” and “Hey Baby,” among the best party songs this side of Y2K? Well, with some globetrotting and an abundance of trust in the process. When not pushed away for the humid little midtempos, electric guitars scribble a jagged line through the record, whether they’re grinding up against Stefani’s vocal line (“Hella Good”), detouring the record into a grungy house party (“Detective,” “Platinum Blonde Life”), or guiding her through the accents on a punky melody line (“Don’t Let Me Down”). Beyond its guitar work and Stefani’s voice, though, Rock Steady is open season. The band uses ska rock as a launch pad, bouncing between lax, even romantic spaces (like “Underneath It All”) and more characteristic outbursts. “Platinum Blonde Life,” for one, is a smash single waiting to be plucked from the album 20 years late – as if it didn’t have three massive ones as it stands.

• • •

There’s a key distinction between Rock Steady and the other albums in No Doubt’s roster: Fun. Of course, we all have fun listening to “Just a Girl” or “Don’t Speak,” bangers created before “banger” was common vernacular. The problem resided in No Doubt: They weren’t having a good time when they wrote them. Those songs are painful and angry: “Oh, I’ve had it up to here!” A metaphoric white flag was turned into a massive hook for all to scream. Return of Saturn documents a schism in Gwen Stefani, who had one eye on success and the other on marriage. On Rock Steady, meanwhile, love (among other substances, surely) is in the air: Dance, make out, vamp, holler – anything goes in the album’s late night hours. Bass player Tony Kanal told Billboard, “When we started making this record, we decided to put everything else aside and just have a great time. While we're writing music, let's keep the fun going." 

While Gwen Stefani’s roster overflows with isolated hits, there are two truly outstanding records in No Doubt’s catalog, Tragic Kingdom and Rock Steady. They wedge themselves into musical history through opposite narratives: The former is a singular ska punk brush stroke, while the latter collages a record from anything in reach. Bar maybe “Start the Fire,” the band typically displays good judgement on how far they can bend each song, though, resulting in Picassian abstracts on their influences rather than a maximalist appropriated glut. In its review of the album upon its release, Entertainment Weekly called the band “oddly flimsy” “rock Martha Stewarts.” Joke’s on them – Martha Stewart is a convicted felon who rolls with Snoop Dogg, and most of Rock Steady, a 20-year-old record indebted to almost every genre while being tied down exclusively to none of them, still knocks as hard now as it did then.

Rock Steady was released on Dec. 11, 2001, under Interscope Records.

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