Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Wonderful Life

Song: Wonderful Life
Artist: Gwen Stefani
Album: The Sweet Escape

While promoting her first solo album, the smash “Love, Angel, Music, Baby” Gwen Stefani boasted that she had so much great material that she had more for a second record. This sounded great while working the first record, but upon the release of her second record “The Sweet Escape” (In stores December 5th) with an okay first single (“Wind it Up”) it felt like what we were getting was a CD of leftovers, and not coincidentally, right before the holiday shopping season. I have been listening to “Wind it Up” for a while now and while I do like it, it’s hard not hear that it’s basically a “Hollaback Girl 2.” Because of this, and knowing that some of these songs were hold overs from the first record, it’s hard not to think that Gwen is losing her edge a bit.

I’m pleased to say that after a few spins of “The Sweet Escape” it is far from the disaster I thought it might be, and contains a lot of nice surprises. Yes, “Wind it Up” comes across as “Hollaback Girl’s” less fun little sister, making boasts about being original yet sounding like a “My Humps/London Bridge” knock off. To be fair though… Gwen was here first. And as The Sweetest Escape goes on, I’m reminded of the Scissor Sisters, not that it sounds like them, but Gwen is taking bits from the past (though not going any further back than say 1984) and making music for the future. And my guess is that they did the similar sounding “Wind it Up” at the same time as “Hollaback Girl,” decided “Girl” was better, and saved the other for this disc. Which now seems to make perfect sense as the lead single.

After “Wind it Up,” we get the reggae-lite “Sweet Escape” featuring rapper Akon (Who’s latest album just had a top three debut this week.) It’s a bit ska like, and feels like a song Gwen could have written and performed in between her days with No Doubt and her super-slick solo material. It’s really a nice song that I liked right away. “Orange County Girl” sounds like rapper Nelly as produced by the Neptunes, who produce a total of five tracks on the record, including a duet with Pharell called “Yummy” that sounds like a mid-temp “Milkshake.” As much as I usually like their hip-pop productions, the Neptunes songs are by far the least interesting.

“Now That You Got it,” produced by Swizz Beats, is a summery, fun block party style song and my favorite of the more hip hop sounding tracks. It has a Ring the Alarm-style siren that comes up throughout. Actually, the entire record, despite coming in the winter, has a very sunny, summery vibe to it. “Don’t Get it Twisted” seems to nab the music break from The Sound of Music’s “So Long, Farewell” for its hook. (She also took The Sound of Music’s “Lonely Goatherd” for “Wind it Up.”) While these are fun party songs, they resist the attention-grabbing in your face style which was employed on many of “L.A.M.B.’s” singles. The vibe is much more laid back this time, which I appreciate.

I loved “L.A.M.B.” and specifically for the 80’s style ballads “Cool” and “the Real Thing,” which I both thought sounded just as good as any ACTUAL 80’s ballad hit. Gwen once again goes back to this territory as produced by Tony Kanal (of No Doubt and the subject of “Don’t Speak” and “Cool”) and Nelle Hooper. I immediately liked “Early Winter” and “4 in the Morning,” for this vibe as they reminded me of those song. Best of all is the closing track “Wonderful Life,” produced by Nelle Hooper (Of Soul II Soul who has produced Madonna and Bjork amongst others) and contains guitar work by Martin Gore of Depeche Mode, it sounds like Madonna meets D.M. I love it.

What occurs to me now that I listen to this and think back to Gwen’s first record and her work with No Doubt, she is definitely on the crux of being an artist and being a pop star. The girl can write some great adult lyrics, as evident on much of No Doubt’s “Return to Saturn” and a couple tracks on “Hella Good” and the solo record, but she also feels the pressure to write that hit song, which she does. While Hollaback Girl is a great party song, nobody’s going to confuse it with Joni Mitchell, and I guess the thing that gets me is that she CAN write like Joni. (See “Running,” “Simple Kind of Life,” and “Cool.”) So will she ever write the perfect pop record where her poetic artistry and mainstream pop sensibilities meet? I think she can, though she’ll have to do without fluff like “Wind it Up.”

So “The Sweet Escape” isn’t the disaster it could have been, and while I don’t think it’s as good as “L.A.M.B.” it has it’s moments that are worth the price of admission.


The video for Wind it Up:

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