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NEW MUSIC: Gwen Stefani, "The Sweet Escape"

2 1/2 stars

(Interscope)

Watching Gwen Stefani, one sometimes gets the sense she is on a quest to win a series of awards that exist only in her head: Least Comprehensible Number One Hit You Will Never Get Out Of Your Head (2004’s fight-song-cum-spelling-lesson “Hollaback Girl,” off her solo debut “Love.Angel.Music.Baby”), Most Discomfiting Use Of Actual People As Fashion Accessories (her so-called Harajuku girls, contractually forbidden to speak English in public), and of course the Madonna Wannabe Award For Utter Lack Of Shame In Self-Promotion (she namedrops her own design line, L.A.M.B, in as many songs as she can).

Perhaps she was shooting for another glitzy trophy to add to her mental collection when she penned the line “This is the most craziest shit ever”: Most Meta Song Lyric Of All Time. It seems fitting; after all, who knows crazy shit better than Gwen Stefani? Her “Rich Girl” video featured pirates. She sampled Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Her shit is, indeed, bananas.

“The Sweet Escape” begins with Stefani in full, crazy swing. Those of you who once struggled to understand exactly why she was singing that song from “Fiddler on the Roof” can now puzzle further by listening to “Wind It Up” and wondering why she is sampling that song about the goatherd from “The Sound of Music” in the middle of verses spoken-sung over bombastic synthesizers and pounding drum machines (and the obligatory L.A.M.B. reference). She’s yodeling! Crazy, right?

Yet something doesn’t feel right. The improbable success of “Hollaback Girl” was due in part to its refreshing quirkiness. “Wind It Up,” on the other hand, is so over the top that its eccentricity seems forced, as if trying (and failing) to match the success of her previous hit as well as to keep up with Fergie’s copycat “London Bridge.”

“The Sweet Escape” maintains the distinct sound of Stefani’s previous release—high on production, low on melody, almost gleefully noisy. But instead of the genuinely original rule-ignoring sensibilities that made “Love, Angel, Music, Baby” so much fun even at its least aurally pleasing, “The Sweet Escape” gives us a variety of musical styles run through Stefani’s production. “Orange County Girl” affects R&B; without a true sense of either. “Yummy” recycles the singing-speaking cadence and mechanical beat of “Wind It Up” with even less of a tune.

But the album is not without its high points. The title track is a retro pop gem with a bit of swing and gratuitous but not overwhelming woo-hoos in the background. “Early Winter” could almost come off a best-of-’80s collection, and if Stefani’s admittedly somewhat Munchkin-like voice isn’t the most suited for power ballads, the unpretentious plaintiveness with which she wails in frustration, “Why do you act so stupid / You know that I’m always right” comes very close to being affecting. And “Don’t Get It Twisted,” the self-identifying “most craziest shit ever,” sounds, for no discernible reason, like circus music run amok—and is one of the album’s pleasingly surprising tracks as a result.

Stefani’s willingness to completely change direction halfway through a song—repeatedly—remains intact, and perhaps the fact her songs are less “Huh?”-inducing this time around could be taken as a sign of progress. Still, changing tracks is less impressive when you have nowhere new to go—Stefani has lost some of her fresh zaniness without gaining any maturity. Let’s hope that by her next album, she has enough new ideas to do something besides try in vain to recreate the spark of “Lamb.Angel.Music.Baby.”
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