On 2nd outing, sugary pop puts Stefani in best light
Singer, fashion designer and rare actress, Gwen Stefani makes the short list of women commanding their own multi-media fortunes. As the singer for ska-pop outfit No Doubt, Stefani overshadowed her bandmates and became an instant solo sensation. For her 2004 debut, “Love Angel Music Baby,” she won lots of praise, mostly for collaborating with The Neptunes, Dallas Austin and Andre 3000.
On her newest disc, “The Sweet Escape,” Stefani flexes her broad marketability. Skating deftly between sugary pop and sexy hip-hop, she’s convincing in both venues without sacrificing any charm.
As with “Love Angel Music Baby,” Stefani makes no bones about “The Sweet Escape” being a dance record that’s slick and vapid. But that won’t excuse some of Stefani’s more adventurous jags.
Most perplexing is the album opener and first single, “Wind It Up.” A hip-hop braggadocio about clubs, clothes and cool poses, the Neptunes- produced track is inexplicably structured around a sample of “The Lonely Goatherd” from “The Sound of Music.” That Stefani actually yodels to this dreck proves embarrassing for everyone involved.
Of the five Neptunes-helmed tracks, the minimal “Yummy” lacks originality. Transparent in its attempt to cast young mom Stefani as a club-hopping sex freak, the track suffers from an Indian-inspired backing track that sounds like it was lifted from the Neptunes-produced “Milkshake” by Kelis.
Stefani proves more successful with pop fare. The summery title track is a catchy, tasty treat. The same goes for the new-wave closer, “Wonderful Life,” which finds Stefani again co-writing with lesbian hit-maker Linda Perry (Christina Aguilera, Courtney Love). Not as good but still on the positive side is the groovy “Flourescent,” which combines dirty funk grooves with a sweet chorus.
Slightly uneven, “The Sweet Escape” shows that Stefani isn’t standing still. This sophomore effort won’t earn the same praise as “Love Angel Music Baby,” but there’s no doubt that Stefani is moving forward.
Seemingly averse to projects that don’t involve years of work and dozens of tracks, indie wunderkind Sufjan Stevens has jumped aboard the Christmas bandwagon. Taking a break from his project of writing an album for each of the 50 states, Stevens emerges with “Songs For Christmas,” a five-disc compilation that was six years in the making.
Somber, tender and celebratory, Steven’s traditional and original Christmas anthems could inspire revelers too jaded by modern hymns. Those already familiar Stevens’ will find “Songs For Christmas” a comfortably lo-fi affair with complements of guitar, banjo and keyboards.
Numbers reportedly culled from a Readers’ Digest book of Christmas music are creatively arranged, sometimes undergoing gentle tweaks in time signature or chord structure.
Unsurprisingly, “Songs for Christmas” lean toward the sacred, with non-liturgical selections making rare cameos. Although his previous work hinted toward Christian themes, Stevens avoids discussions about faith. He also consistently dodges persistent questions about sexual identity, which leave listeners guessing about his lyrics and whether Stevens’ faith and sexuality are conflicted.
At a jaw-dropping 42 tracks clocking in at just over two hours, there’s too much material on “Songs for Christmas” to bother singling out any track for good or ill. Each of the five discs feature hidden gems, with original tunes scoring particularly high and standards being treated with a healthy deference.
Fans of holiday goodies will also be impressed: The packaging for “Songs For Christmas” includes holiday-themed stickers, a booklet featuring a Christmas essay by novelist Rick Moody and two short stories penned by Stevens. There’s also a songbook including lyrics and chords for each song.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, December 22, 2006.
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