It's like a concept album about partying.

This 2001 release from No Doubt, their fifth album, is a departure from their previous work in many ways, but extremely faithful to their original sound in other ways, and many of the broad changes to their sound refresh and enliven the songs, even the most formulaic ones. Though most of the punky lead guitar has been traded for keyboards and punchy bass and drum lines, the reggae/ska elements that are the linchpin, the defining piece of No Doubt's sound, are still there - and Gwen Stefani's vocals are as they've always been. She's not the most stunning or moving singer in popular music, but I can't complain - she's expressive, and she can fit herself to the music. The phrasing of the lyrics is jarring a thousand times before she makes a single vocal misstep.

On the whole, the lyrics are simplistic and almost juvenile. The songs are about dancing and hanging out and falling in love and out of love and falling back in and out of love, presumably with someone else... and they can be repetitive, especially when it comes to 90's slang that I haven't heard used seriously in a song since the days of M.C. Hammer, or any other 90s mass-appeal flash in the pan that you might compare these lyrics to. Stefani says "hella", "wicked", "I'm just kickin' it", and so on, and many of these random colloquialisms seem absurdly forced. While trying to add a bit of flava to the lyrics they instead somehow make them more banal. Perhaps the worst offense to my poetic sensibility is this couplet that opens the title track:

Love is like a punishment,
Homegirl here to represent.

But then, some listeners may go for that. Personally, I feel the band can do better than that, and it feels like the lyrics for this album were rushed, as if they had a collection of great dance songs, but like the Happy Mondays on their last album, they couldn't come up with anything good to sing over their bouncy, reggae-inflected tunes.

However, this is not just an album about dancing, but an album for dancing - and the musical side of it is superb, far more refined than the lyrics. No Doubt has enlisted some heavy talent for the album. Bounty Killer and Lady Saw have powerful voices, and when they come in on their tracks the songs just turn around; you'll find yourself anticipating their bass-filled voices every time. While No Doubt can pull off reggae music with ease, Gwen Stefani is no reggae singer, and depending on one's mood, it's possible to enjoy some of these songs just on the basis of the guest vocals... and the production.

Almost half the tracks were produced by Nellee Hooper, who's worked with Madonna, Bjork, and Baz Luhrmann, among others, and produced many techno compilations, greatest hits albums, and film soundtracks - Hooper knows catchy music. William Orbit, Ric Ocasek, and Prince produced Making Out, Don't Let Me Down, and Waiting Room, respectively. The work of all three are preceded by their reputations, but Prince especially shines - with backing vocals and many elements of his style, Waiting Room is more like a duet between he and Gwen than a No Doubt track that he simply produced. While Sly & Robbie aren't "names" like the others (unless it's an alias for some pair of more elite producers), they deserve a mention in any discussion of the album, because their tracks, Hey Baby and Underneath It All, are perfect radio-ready singles.

Underneath It All is the ballad of the album - there are other slow songs, but this is the longest track besides the smooth, lazy closer, and it's the one love'n'conflict one that has a decidedly happy ending, as opposed to the more pessimistic Running (which is another good ballad, but not as representative of the album, nor as good single material). Underneath It All could perhaps work as a superior companion piece for Avril Lavigne's Complicated, another recent radio/MTV hit. While both share the sentiments of loving someone through their layers of posturing and pretense, and wishing they'd just realize they don't need to front an attitude to anyone, the Lavigne song comes off as selfish whining, while the No Doubt song turns the same kind of plea into a statement of confidence in the song's object, confidence that if he would just be himself he'd find he's a better person than people think.

Hey Baby needs little introduction and no comparison - it's a very relentless dance song about how modern human mating rituals are amusing. It's simple and it hits you like its titular phrase. Like Hella Good, it's about the first part of the album's lovin' and feudin' and makin' up cycle, being drawn in to another person while you're just having a good time. The song draws you in like the people it's talking about, and that's what it's supposed to do, and all it needs to do.

Out of the first three singles off the album, those two work much better than Hella Good, the first Hooper-produced single, which is harsher and less pop-y. As an opener for the album, it works fine, and leading into Hey Baby they meld together, but it doesn't really stand alone.

Hooper gives us my favorite track off the album, though: Detective. Perhaps the happiest song ever recorded about catching a cheating lover, it's got chirpy vocals and silly metaphors and I find it irresistably cute.

In the end, Rock Steady is a damn good album. It's got its flaws - some of the songs' lyrics are impossible to take seriously - but it's got no real low point, and when it comes to pure dance music there are many lower rungs on the intellectual ladder than this. If you've heard one of the songs and enjoyed it, chances are you'll like the rest, and if you've liked No Doubt's previous work, there's at least a few songs on here you'll like. It's no second coming of Tragic Kingdom - but it's not really meant to be. It's meant as a hell of a party album, with little serious subject matter beyond "love is tough", and that's what it is.

Track listing:

  1. Intro
  2. Hella Good
  3. Hey Baby (featuring Bounty Killer)
  4. Making Out
  5. Underneath It All (featuring Lady Saw)
  6. Detective
  7. Don't Let Me Down
  8. Start The Fire
  9. Running
  10. In My Head
  11. Platinum Blonde Life
  12. Waiting Room
  13. Rock Steady

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