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Friday, October 24, 2014 
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Gwen Stefani
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Love. Angel. Music. Baby.
Interscope
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"What You Waiting For?" has long b'come the inescapable anthem of the early summer (or winter, if you live on the wrong side of the globe), but, lost amidst all that saturation play and the over-and-over-again exclamation of its singular title/chorus is the fact that, as far as runaway number-ones go, the debut solo single for (former?) No Doubt singer Gwen Stefani is actually a strange concoction; a heavily produced, highly stylized outing in which a collection of seemingly disparate ideas are woven into a song that, when heard once, is hard to forget. There are two distinct lyrical angles in the cut that, through repetition (and, then, repetition, on a larger scale), b'come one; and, if we're to take Stefani as a serious artist, we can say that she's set two specific topics against each other, so as to tell a story. Firstly, the song is about the frustration of writer's block, an initial thought that spills into greater dissatisfactions, the worries of a female pop pin-up feeling her age in the harsh glare of public spotlight (over half a decade having passed since the Return of Saturn), concerns about being even more alone in such glaring illumination with her first solo foray, anger at a failure to take full advantage of the artistic emancipation of a long-awaited solo venture, and fears that that artistic failure could, then, lead to a commercial failure. Secondly, there're the direct references to Harajuku, Tokyo's youth mecca, that, when first heard, seem astonishing, Stefani showing an aesthetic and empathetic understanding of the culture she's giving a "shout out" to, something that isn't exactly commonplace with globetrotting American pop stars, whose days're an endless parade of hotel rooms, backstages, and press-meeting shake-and-fakes, and for whom foreign cultures are usually only interesting in how they reflect back on their All-American dream, and life lived thus. In giving a "shout out" to the hyper-styled-up street-fashion kids who hang out outside Yoyogi Park in Harajuku, Stefani is really celebrating the exuberant pop-cultural appetite of Japan's out-of-control consumer culture, the greater celebration being how this has been good to her band over the years. At first, the two don't necessarily seem to go together, except for the fact that Stefani is eager to get her solo gear out so she can shift some serious units in Japan (as offered elsewhere on the record: "cha-ching"). Yet, in that line — "I can't wait to back and do Japan/ Get me lots of brand new fans" — the two lyrical lines slyly get stitched together, the greater artistic picture portraying Stefani drawing inspiration from the Harajuku girls to overcome her various creative woes.

If that sounds like a stretch, that changes when you hear her debut longplayer, Love. Angel. Music. Baby., where she follows up her opening-up single (which opens up) with "Rich Girl," a largely lyrically-insipid song (in which the incredibly wealthy pop-starlet wonders what it'd be like to be, uh, incredibly wealthy) that actually finds her singing: "I'd get me four Harajuku girls to/ Inspire me, and they'd come to my rescue/ I'd dress them wicked, I'd give them names/ Love. Angel. Music. Baby./ Hurry up and come and save me." Later, on a song just straight-up called "Harajuku Girls," she keeps with the thematic consistency, offering an ambling ode to said same street-fashion lasses over an anodyne Jam & Lewis production; Stefani does a better job of expressing the expressiveness of fashion, as she sees it (like with the lines "Your underground culture/ Visual grammar/ The language of your clothing/ Is something to encounter") than many would give her credit for. In fact, in the months since the astonishing arrival of "What You Waiting For?" her understanding of the high-concept grandeur of forged fashion conception has itself come into the spotlight, the singer taking her album's inspiration, and the dressed-up aesthetic that's gone with, to some sort of performance-art-ish extent. Whilst it's hardly as revolutionary in this era as it was back when Malcolm McLaren and Arturo Vega were dressing the Sex Pistols and The Ramones, respectively, in conceptual threads, seeing (the self-dressed and big-picture blessed) Stefani strut into awards shows with an entourage of her four Harajuku girls — Love, Angel, Music, Baby, no less — is like a joyous crossover of ludicrous art-scene excess to the music-television world, a world that has recently been in thrall to the idiocy of the extended hip-hop crew, such a posse so often equating to numerous brawny dudes in various sports-team jerseys. In this, Stefani herself has taken her own style into the same said world, her evocations of past modes of glamour like some dramatic counter to the teenaged poppets parading about in their best little-slut dress-ups.

"What You Waiting For?" has essentially cemented Stefani's place in the pantheon of the ultra-famous, the singer finally shedding the baggage of her backing band, so long pushed to the back of photo shoots, and reveling in her own celebre. Stefani had been building to this moment — not just the solo outing, but the actual solo album — for years; the Eve guest spot herein is just a payback for the guest vocal on Eve's already-forgotten pop hit "Let Me Blow Ya Mind," the Andre 3000 collaborations an extension of the union forged by that amazing OutKast remix of "Hey Baby," and the Nellee Hooper programming/productions a continuation of the work between the two on the last (and last?) No Doubt longplayer, Rock Steady. It was on that album that the band, thankfully, ditched ties to their, uh, "ska" past, reveled in a newfound love of dub, and ditched that band-as-band mentality, allowing their songs to be shaped and dictated by the producers therein; which meant, of course, that Stefani stepped even further to the fore, away from the band that often seemed like her backing band. Love. Angel. Music. Baby. turns many of the same stylistic tricks as Rock Steady, not least of which being the tonal reliance on candy-coated, '80s-sounding, brightly-colored keyboards and programming, there being the obligatory cuts herein — "Cool," "Crash," "The Real Thing," "Serious" — where great care was taken to get that neo-vintage sound sounding just right. In and amongst such, the songs helmed by the shit-hot hip-hop producers break up the tight tonality; although Dr.Dre's work on "Rich Girl" is a little fruitier than one may've come to expect from the austere hip-hop head. Conversely, The Neptunes, as is their current stylistic wont, strip things back to some sort of essentialist essence, "Hollaback Girl" largely setting Stefani's cheerleader vocals to a highly percussive piece of programming and a wired-up keyboard riff.

The big calling cards, though, are the two tracks cooked up with Andre 3000, one of which the mischievous OutKast cad authors under his guise of Johnny Vulture, the "rockin" guitarist from the "Hey Ya!" video clip. That track, "Bubble Pop Electric," is a mad marriage of cutesy/kitschy good-girl-meets-boy-from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks on-the-jukebox-isms and absolutely manic programming, a future single that rarely relents in its busy beats and cultivated polyrhythms (something that rubs against the twee slow-jam swing of the following "Luxurious," filled with all sorts of ersatz synth-sound, played and produced by Stefani's ND cohort Tony Kanal). The other Andre track is also built on breathless beat-making, but, under his own name, he's authored something far more earnest; "Long Way to Go" addresses the slow progress t'wards racial equality over a strange mix of tangled-up rhythms, with the hyperactive beats laid over with faux-Eastern flutterings of polyrhythm, stabs of discordant horns, gentle drifts of softly-lensed sentimental piano chords, and nimble-fingered scratchings that cut in and out with parts of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech. The song, delivered on closing, seems just as symbolic of the album that has preceded it as the opening hit single is symbolic of the album to come at the beginning. Where the first song sets the lyrical and conceptual tenor, establishing the album as a conceptual work of art a cut above the regular dross of the rock-biz, the final song seems to encapsulate the musical feeling of much of the album, where a bunch of interesting ideas, and some slyly "experimental" touches, don't often sit well together, either within the song or on the album as a whole. Love. Angel. Music. Baby. has been acclaimed as a bright-and-shiny pop-music tour-de-force, but once the initial thrilling rush of the stylistic sheen and artistic conception has abated, the album seems too fragmented to be anointed as such.


by Anthony Carew




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