Okay, let's be frank. If the crescendoing yodel with which Gwen Stefani kicks off her latest solo effort, The Sweet Escape, doesn't give it away, rest assured that this album is roughly 60 percent superficial experimentation (and no, you weren't dreaming -that yodel was an interpolated sample from "The Lonely Goatherder").
Gwen totally has no excuse for putting out worse albums than she did as a quasi-alternative ska singer in 1995, because now she has mad skrill behind her, and production assists from Pharrell Williams -- not to mention that she's had plenty of time to acclimate to the Southern California dance club scene without devolving into a my humps, my humps, my humps caricature. It seems Stefani started going downhill once she broke free from No Doubt because she was suddenly burdened with having to establish her identity as a solo pop diva.
Apparently falsetto-voiced Orange County blonds were already passe by that point, and there's really no room in the pop music world for another Madonna or Fergie Ferg. While Gwen could have tried to be a white Missy Elliott singing about her gangsta pussy or her magical blow job skills, it probably wouldn't have been commercially viable. She still seems to be trying out different personae on this album (she's a sulky material girl on "Orange County Girl" and a contemporary Dorothy Parker on the irritating "Breakin' Up," which uses dropped cell phone calls as a metaphor for failed relationships, and a glamazon blonde throughout the rest of the album) and most of them aren't all that convincing. As a result, the songs don't cohere too well.
But there are a few things about this otherwise-problematic album that make it interesting. Gwen contributes to the ultravain, sexually aggressive women-in-pop dialogue. She has a primordial, come-hither song called "Yummy" that's almost an exact copy of that Kelis ditty about her milkshake that brings all the boys to the yard. Complete with the African drum and a salty cameo from Pharrell, who tries to save the song by turning it into a conventional rap number: Big house, garage, Bentleys, farrar ... ain't no nigga you can find like this, I mean blow your mine like this, nigga watch don't shine like this, if it's stickin then it don't tell time like this. Not surprisingly, the song finally starts getting good about three and a half minutes in, when both of them shut the hell up. You're left with roughly a minute's worth of weird, mechanical drum fills, whizzing machine sounds, and synthesized horns. It sounds as though Kid Koala suddenly made a surprise guest appearance to rescue this undeserving So-Cal diva from, well, her own poor taste.
The two songs that actually work -- namely, the ska-influenced title track and a sunbeamy number called "Fluorescent" -- are fucking fabulous. "The Sweet Escape" features pop crooner Akon singing a rousing "woo-hoo, yeeeee-oooh" on the hook, and sounds just like old new wave Gwen. The hook on "Fluorescent" actually harks back to Culture Club. It's the kind of stuff she should stick with -- retro-sounding, minimalist, cheeseball pop. If only she'd made the whole album like that -- instead of bouncing all over the map, trying to be ghetto fabulous -- it probably would have worked. -- Rachel Swan