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Tuesday September 27th

No Doubt Surprises Longtime Fans With Club-Ready Dance Album



4 Stars

It's unexpected that a band previously known for ska-punk music can make such a successful dance record.

But No Doubt has pulled it off and reinvented itself with Rock Steady. Sure, the group recalls trusted reggae and dub elements, but the album is also notable for its marching beats, club-ready grooves and keyboard effects reminiscent of '80s dance-pop.

These sounds are evident from the first song, the lively "Hella Good," to the closing title track. The band uses a noisy approach to a lesser extent than on their previous albums, and most of Rock Steady is marked by refinement and attention to song structure.

The new style might be disconcerting for longtime fans, so more than one listen might be warranted. But once the group's direction becomes clear, it's easier to appreciate the shift.

Rock Steady is full of effective, competent dance music. It's a sign that Gwen Stefani and company are still going strong and evolving, as their music calls for folks to shake their booties rather than to rock out.

Thankfully, while the group's sound has changed, the personal and revealing nature of Gwen Stefani's lyrics have not. The emotional complexity she showcased on 2000's Return of Saturn is still here in full force to help give this album an edge.

Stefani has a lot to sing about because of her past heartbreaks and her current engagement to Bush's Gavin Rossdale. "And the flowers arrive to my surprise/But that just ain't good enough" she sings in "Making Out." The tune's wicked bass accompanies Stefani as she laments her constant separation from her fiance due to touring and other superstar duties.

Ironically, Rock Steady probably will make Stefani into an even bigger star.

She already has had increased exposure through appearances on tracks by Moby and Eve. With this effort, she continues to dominate the spotlight.

The album takes full advantage of her sexy voice, which alternately exudes cunning and vulnerability. The work also benefits from the band's long-standing penchant to fuse together different genres of music.

The album is mainstream-ready throughout with its finely polished mixture of pop, ska, hip hop, rock and dance. The band used a wide array of producers from reggae legends Sly & Prince to Ric Ocasek.

While this series of collaborations has resulted in a number of gems, there are a couple of small missteps. The uninteresting single "Hey Baby" sounds like something Max Martin should have written for Britney Spears. But overall Rock Steady generally flows well and is musically and lyrically consistent.

And it's fun. The newest LP is a lot more fun than the weighty and ambitious Saturn. With its new effort, the band came back to party, and the album is decidedly vibrant, upbeat and above all, danceable.

Granted, these songs aren't as impressive as some of the complicated themes found on the last album. But they're certainly welcome and easy to take, and any talk of selling out should be quieted by Stefani's improved songwriting.

Rock Steady signifies continued evolution for a band that supposedly reached its peak with 1996's Tragic Kingdom. Although getting older, No Doubt is only getting better.

And it can still make us dance.

The Arts & Entertainment Editor can be reached at artsdesk@unc.edu.

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