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GWEN STEFANI - THE SWEET ESCAPE Ė UNIVERSAL
Record Rating: ***

GWEN STEFANI - THE SWEET ESCAPE On the strength of lead singer Gwen Stefani's persona, few post-alternative bands were as successful in the 90s as No Doubt. A versatile, muscular and tuneful punk outfit, the groupís second album Tragic Kingdom made Stefani a superstar overnight, into an endlessly ambitious, fearlessly provocative entertainer that knew how to outrage, spark debates, and move records while sheís at it.

2004ís Love Angel Music Baby was Stefaniís first solo effort, and a distinct departure from her bandís energetic, catchy indie rock. Instead, she refashioned herself as an inoffensive mainstream R&B pop singer and the makeover worked commercially, as well as artistically. On The Sweet Escape, her second solo offering, she continues this pursuit, though she is guilty of experimenting, albeit slightly, just for the sake of doing so.

Everything that made that the first album a success is repeated here; the twelve tracks once again fall halfway between alternative pop and R&B. First single Wind It Up charted highly, and sent this CD straight to #3 on the US Charts upon its release. The albumís other sure singles include 4 In The Morning, U Started It and Breakiní Up, which are all gilded with shiny, computerised production and 80s drum loops; while official second single The Sweet Escape features hip-hop newcomer Akon, in a clever mainstream co-opting of hip-hop and new wave quirkiness.

Inspite of all this, the overall effort lacks the thrilling immediacy of her debut or a previous No Doubt release. It isn't that Stefaniís sound is no longer appealing; it's just that the slick studio manufactured production here has a tendency to make each and every song sound nearly the same. That was a problem with her debut as well and itís discouraging to find that those flaws are repeated, not solved. Disappointing ~ her talents are wasted here.

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