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Stefani delivers in new role as pop's play-at-home mom

The Sweet Escape mixes a newfound home life with her desire to rule the charts.

By SEAN DALY, TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC
Published December 7, 2006


There is no greater combo of talent, charisma, poise, beauty and intangible incandescence in the pop landscape than Gwen Stefani. Seriously. Save your Justins, Ushers and Christinas. You're b-a-n-a-n-a-s.

Defending the multiplatinum platinum blond as the case-closed Queen of Pop just got easier, too: Her new solo album, The Sweet Escape, is almost as entertaining as 2004 solo debut Love. Angel. Music. Baby., which was almost the best album of that year. The Killers' Hot Fuss beat it by a glammy hook.

Who else has that kind of quality, that kind of consistency in the pop universe?

Exactly.

Gwen's appeal, as both a solo star and the frontwoman of No Doubt, has always been her split personalities: the millionaire pop star vs. the dorky fangirl hugging her Madonna records; the career striver vs. the swoony romantic dreaming of making a family. In 2000, she talked of a Simple Kind of Life ("I always thought I'd be a mom/Sometimes I wish for a mistake"), and yet she sold the No Doubt song with rock-star panache, giving glamor to white-picket dreams.

If L.A.M.B. was all about the excitement of going solo (but the tick-tocking concern of being childless in her mid 30s), The Sweet Escape deals with the 37-year-old Stefani's marriage (to former Bush frontman Gavin Rossdale), motherhood (son Kingston) and a desire to stay smart and sexy at the top of the charts. A lot has changed in her rumble-tumble life, but leave it to Stefani to make her musical introspection fiendishly catchy and ridiculously danceable.

In a downright brilliant opening statement, Gwen kicks off with the club banger Wind It Up, in which the singer's mothering instinct is represented by her yodeling The Lonely Goatherd from The Sound of Music. At the same time, the Neptunes produce a sexy backbeat for her other alter ego as a sin-snorting club queen; there's the marching band beat, an X-rated synth line and randy go-girl chants. For the song's finale, Good Gwen and Bad Gwen clash and click, and the result is akin to Julie Andrews singing Hollaback Girl.

Later on the album, the Neptunes return to helm Yummy, by far the hottest track to ever include the sound of a crying baby. "I'm feeling yummy head to toe," the new mom struts over a vaguely Middle Eastern groove. Yes, Gwen was off "making babies," but now "it's time to make you sweat." Good lord, somebody call a babysitter.

L.A.M.B. was a near-perfect pop album, and The Sweet Escape suffers at times from following such a gem. Early Winter, written by Stefani and Keane's Tim Rice-Oxley, is a washed-out moaner that sounds like it cried itself to sleep sometime in 1983. The total disconnect Breakin' Up uses cell-phone technology as a metaphor for a relationship. And Gwen really needs to stop shilling her L.A.M.B. clothing line.

Still, Stefani is pretty much incapable of being boring, and she routinely saves songs that could have been lost. On Don't Get It Twisted, a potential train wreck with its overactive keyboard swirls, Stefani unloads a mesmerizing chorus that sounds like something from the Big Top. The cut is about the initial drama of getting pregnant - and she chooses music for acrobats. On the cheery title track, she borrows the girl-group vibe from Madonna's True Blue and coos together happy-happy harmonies, making a good song great.

Fans of the broad-stroked L.A.M.B. might sneer at the number of ballads on The Sweet Escape, but repeat listens pay off. Orange County Girl is a chilly diary entry with Stefani feeling like a normal girl in an extraordinary world. Maybe I'm a sucker, but it sure sounds genuine to me. Same goes for Depeche Modian closer Wonderful Life.

The album's sneaky highlight is Fluorescent, written with and produced by Tony Kanal, her ex-boyfriend and No Doubt bandmate. Again, Stefani jumps in her '80s-stuck time machine, but this time she comes back with a charmer. She plays tough in the verses (the bad girl), mushy in the shimmery chorus (the good girl), all before turning the song into a silly dance-off (the party girl). Fluorescent shows up at the soggy middle where most pop albums resort to filler. But not our Gwennie. The girl just never gives up.

All hail the Queen.

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8467. His blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic .

CD review:

The Sweet Escape

Gwen Stefani (Interscope)

Grade: A-