Illustration by Tra Selhtrow

Woman vs. Machine

If the release of Medulla secured Björk’s position as queen of art-house pop (and it did), then Love. Angel. Music. Baby. makes it clear that Gwen Stefani is the princess of the multiplex. That’s not a diss. The nasal-voiced singer-songwriter/fledgling actress has long demonstrated an impressive knack for penning smart lyrics and catchy hooks that the boys in the band No Doubt skillfully wrap in ska/punk/reggae-lite, refracted Top 40 grooves. It’s popcorn fare but it’s filling. The cinema analogy can be teased further with Stefani, who’s making her big-screen debut in Martin Scorsese’s Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator. In it, the erstwhile Orange County babe plays Jean Harlow, the prototypical Hollywood blond bombshell. Whether or not you think she pulls it off, casting her in the part lays bare her cultural lineage.

When No Doubt first climbed from the O.C. margins to national center stage, the press immediately labeled Stefani the new Madonna. But just as Madonna drew lazy, off-the-mark comparisons to Marilyn Monroe, the comparisons between La Ciccone and Stefani were equally half-assed. The thing(s) that made Stefani snap, crackle and pop were the ways she reconciled contradictions that really only contradict when women are sliced and diced for narrowly cast fantasies. She chilled casually with her boys on the outskirts of mainstream culture while possessing a clear gift for manipulating the formulas of pop convention. She was street savvy, unapologetically athletic and a team player, the kind of girl who’d jump in a mosh pit without hesitation and then chug a beer, all while maintaining the glossy, even delicate, pin-up beauty of which stroke fantasies are made. Her singing voice was both that of a fuck-doll come to life, rouged in emotional wounds and breathy come-ons, and a coolly self-possessed woman. It all added up to a paradoxical sexiness that was natural and unforced yet calculated, dripping in status quo signifiers of beauty and desirability; it was — and still is — hella good.

"This record is actually less of me than I’ve ever been before," says Gwen in the December issue of Blender, discussing the new record. (The acronym L.A.M.B. just so happens to be the name of her recently launched fashion line.) She gets major points for that statement. Most pop stars hawk their latest product by swearing they’re serving you realness, that they’re giving a guided tour through the deepest, darkest caverns in their psyches. But in her quest to make an old-fashioned (as in, a nod to the music of her youth) dance record, the 35-year-old multi-hyphenate makes it clear that there’s artifice at work; the album intentionally distances itself from the already familiar, public Gwen Stefani who pouts and seduces her way across airwaves and fashion layouts, from the flesh & blood woman behind her own burgeoning multimedia empire, and even from the Gwen Stefani who’s penned some of the best songs about the heartache of busted relationships we’ve heard in the last 10 years.

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The new CD is filled with A-list collaborators: songstress-for-hire Linda Perry, André 3000, the Neptunes, Tony Kanal, Nellee Hooper, Dr. Dre, Eve, Dallas Austin; there are even cred-boosting cameos by cult femmes Wendy & Lisa, as well as original members of New Order. Fans and critics have largely embraced L.A.M.B. but there’ve also been persistent, low-hum grumblings of dissatisfaction. The biggest complaint is that, as represented by the slew of co-pilots, the collection is too jarringly unfocused in its segues from new wave to R&B, from metallic guitar riffs to interpolations of classic show tunes, with a stopover in ’80s rock-chick land. Either way, L.A.M.B. is best appreciated as a mix tape whose source material is those old Rhino Records Best of the ’80s compilations.

The track "The Real Thing" opens with a subtle evocation of Cyndi Lauper’s "Time After Time" before shifting gears to ’80s-style Brit synth-pop, summoning the ghosts of New Order, Pet Shop Boys and countless now-forgotten one-hit wonders who were once the staples of KROQ’s playlist. Easily one of L.A.M.B.’s best moments, "The Real Thing" is a potent snapshot of days gone by. It’s also the cut with the greatest cast of cool supporting players — producer: Nellee Hooper (Massive Attack, Björk); background vocals: Bernard Sumner (New Order); keyboards: Lisa Coleman (the Revolution, Wendy & Lisa); guitar: Wendy Melvoin (Wendy & Lisa, the Revolution); bass: Peter Hook (New Order). It’s a mercifully irony-free nod to the synth confections once sneered at by critics and fans of "real" rock music. The chilled outlines of those songs were warmed from the inside by chords of melancholy. They linger in the memories of former (and likely, still) misfits, lonely kids and freaks because the poignant, naked ache in the grooves — almost defiant for being so pointed — spoke not just to the bearer’s isolation but to a yearning for transcendence that almost couldn’t be spoken for fear it might never be realized or fully understood by anyone else.

"Hollaback Girl" lights incense at the shrine of Toni "Hey Mickey" Basil, with the ubiquitous Neptunes providing a marching band’s looped drum & horn play as the thread for a funky cloak that imbues Stefani’s pinched white-girl vocals with barked attitude. Somewhere Kelis is throwing her milkshake against a wall in frustration; her Tasty CD from earlier this year similarly shared the Neptunes and André 3000 as producers. It also had a more-than-similar, all-over-the-map musical approach, complete with an ’80s throwback at its center, but it’s a given that Stefani’s sales, media profile and chart numbers will easily dwarf Kelis’ effort.

The fantastic "Serious" is as much a nod to the once abundant Latin Freestyle/electro-synth garbed Madonnabees as it is to "Borderline"/Jellybean Benitez–era Madonna herself. The drum machine, Chic-derived guitar and sassily delivered lyrics during the bridge are a stellar fusion of elements, tailor-made for dance-floor acting out. "Harajuku Girls," an ode to Japanese youth culture’s consumerism, love of designer fashion and fetish for pricey gadgets consolidates the product placement and name dropping that appears throughout the album, especially on the sample-driven R&B spliff "Luxurious." That last number floats atop a purposefully over-familiar lift from the Isley Brothers’ "Between the Sheets" (think Biggie) and, in flawless duplication of the crude hip-hop/soul love songs that have taken over R&B, filters romantic desire through the language of crass materialism. It’s laugh-out-loud funny for being played almost completely straight — especially the French-spoken intro.

The most immediately affecting song on the album — produced by Dallas Austin, channeling the new-wave gods with a true believer’s devotion (and with an assist from Nellee Hooper) — is "Cool." It’s the latest installation in the ongoing saga of Stefani and ex-boyfriend/still-bandmate, Tony Kanal. With their shattered relationship already being the stuff of many of No Doubt’s best songs — "Don’t Speak," "Simple Kind of Life," "Ex-Girlfriend" — the new song tips a sonic hat to the Cars as Stefani coos lyrics that are both bruised and juiced by the fact of her maintaining a friendship with her former greatest-love-of-all as she embarks on a life with her true true love (husband Gavin Rossdale). In "Cool," Kanal brings his new lady around to meet Stefani, now a dear friend, and the vibe is all love. This is the stuff of not just grown-up life but hard-earned maturity. The two are not mutually exclusive, but they’re far from synonymous and Stefani’s vocals brim with a tenderness that underlines her transition from brokenhearted girl to a woman who’s figured some real shit out: After all the obstacles, it’s good to see you now with someone else/After all that we’ve been through, I know we’re cool.

The only real dud is the closing number, "Long Way To Go," featuring the second vocal and production appearances by André 3000 (billed as Johnny Vulture on the frenetic electro explosion "Bubble Pop Electric"). The duet should have been the 21st-century equivalent of Prince meeting Madonna on "Love Song" from her Like a Prayer album. Not only has L.A.M.B., by this point, been clearly building toward a show-stopping finale but André and Stefani are arguably at the same career zeniths that their musical forbears were when they hooked up in the studio. Instead, this lament at the bigotries faced by interracial couples is a clunky, less cool spinoff of INXS’s "Original Sin." It ultimately collapses beneath the thick, cloying vibe of self-importance that wafts from it.

Overall, though, there’s a tongue-in-cheek quality to the record, a certain playfulness even in the tunes of moody contemplation. The album bottles the giggly fizz of rifling through your old clothes and photos, trying on assorted past selves that are not yet weighed with disappointment and compromise. Stefani’s neatest trick may well be that, despite being a hugely successful corporate commodity by aim and hard work, and having long ago ceased pining for the simple life, she’s still able to set aside the spreadsheet to reveal the human being at the wheel.

Gwen Stefani | Love. Angel. Music. Baby. | Interscope Records


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