- The Washington Times - Monday, December 4, 2006

Gwen Stefani

The Sweet Escape

Interscope Records

One measure of pop superstardom is whe-ther people wonder what you’ll wear next. Gwen Stefani is officially that kind of superstar.

On the cover of her second solo album, “The Sweet Escape,” the No Doubt singer’s latest get-up pays tribute to the peroxided look of Michelle Pfeiffer in “Scarface.” It’s ridiculous, of course, but also kind of riveting — much like the songs within.

“Sex and sugar is the flavor,” Miss Stefani sings on “Yummy,” pretty well summing up the disposable, short-lived, highly pleasurable experience of the album overall.

A sophomore solo effort wasn’t necessarily in the works for Miss Stefani, who plans one day, eventually, to rejoin her No Doubt band mates. (Not that they’re twiddling their thumbs: Bassist and ex-Stefani boyfriend Tony Kanal co-wrote a handful of the tracks here.)

It was the runaway, surprise success of 2004’s “Love. Angel. Music. Baby.” that compelled another outing. As Miss Stefani sing-rap-explains on “Orange County Girl”: “Don’t know what I’m doing back in the studio/Getting greedy ‘cause he said he had another sick flow/So I had to hollaback/Guess I didn’t get enough.”

“He” is Miss Stefani’s sonic enabler, Pharrell Williams, who produced or co-wrote nearly half of “The Sweet Escape.” His is the inventive guiding spirit of the album, with its minimalistic push-button beats and computer-game blips.

“The Sweet Escape” nonetheless opens with a big, bombastic flourish — a “Sound of Music”-sampling ditty called “Wind It Up,” on which Miss Stefani gamely reproduces Julie Andrews’ mountaintop yodeling. The result is an insanely likable Rodgers-and-Hammerstein-in-Arabia nightmare.

The immediately following title track is a juvenile, simpering apology for bad domestic behavior, but it borrows enough bounce from the Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life” to qualify as catchy. It also features R&B; vocalist Akon, another manifestation of the collaborative knack and genre playfulness that have helped transform Miss Stefani into such a successful pop chameleon.

The boring ballad “Early Winter” is an early misstep. With a bass guitar thumping out eighth-notes in the style of Adam Clayton, the song sounds like warmed-over U2. The frenetic staccato bursts of “Now That You Got It” recover the album’s (“sick”) flow — even if the song’s repetitive lyrical hook, “Now that you got it/what you gon’ do about it?” sounds nonsensical outside the confines of a dance club.

After its semistellar front half, “The Sweet Escape” falters on the backside — for no specific reason other than that a little of this stuff goes a long way. For all I care, “The Sweet Escape” could have consisted of “Wind It Up” plus a few B-side remixes for DJs. Throw a dart at this thing, and you’ll pretty much hit the same number every time — which, depending on your tastes, could mean “Escape” is all bull’s-eyes.

Distinguishing each track are minor variations of musical posing; that Miss Stefani is singing about her menstrual cycle (“Don’t Get It Twisted”) or faulty cell-phone reception (“Breakin’ Up”) or marital tiffs (“4 in the Morning,” “U Started It”) is fairly beside the point.

The point, as Miss Stefani herself announces on “Twisted,” is, “Don’t get clever” — just “move it, move, move it.”

Rather appealingly, “The Sweet Escape” never tries to make a big prestige statement; it’s a soundtrack for sweating.

What will Gwen Stefani wear next, indeed.

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