Just call her Alice in Wonderbra.
On "Love. Angel. Music. Baby.," the solo debut from No Doubt singer Gwen Stefani, the flirty party girl gives her ska-rocking ways a rest and slinks down a fantastical, funky rabbit hole, bringing with her a disco ball and an eclectic tea party of hip-hop stars, '80s ghosts and a posse of Japanese fashionistas. This 12-track album gets curiouser and curiouser as it goes along -- a remake of "If I Were a Rich Man," from "Fiddler on the Roof," with rap stars Eve and Dr. Dre? Oy gevalt! But not only is it deliriously imaginative, it's also sexy, cool and irresistible.
When Tom Petty took a sabbatical from his Heartbreakers in 1989, he named his solo album "Full Moon Fever," and you could say Stefani has a wicked case of the same. A vacation from your day job isn't supposed to be hard -- it's supposed to be fun and loose and completely devoid of, you know, serious stuff. Mission accomplished: Without the boys in No Doubt lurking behind her, Stefani gets wild with a melange of Japanese pop, vintage New Wave synth and street-tough grooves. It's the aural equivalent of a fat pack of Fun Dip: lots of funky flavors and enough sugary goodness to keep you going all night long.
Gwen Stefani sings "What You Waiting For?" from her solo CD at the American Music Awards last Sunday.
(Mark J. Terrill -- AP)
It's also ample proof that Stefani, who's testing her talents even further by playing Jean Harlow in Martin Scorsese's upcoming Howard Hughes biopic, "The Aviator," is one of the most likable entertainers working today. Considering her high-kicking stage theatrics and chicks-rule gusto, parents should count themselves lucky if their kids have a thing for Gwen. Yes, she's a world-class tease -- the bleached bombshell has never looked as come-hither hot as she does on the Lewis Carroll-inspired liner notes of "Love. Angel. Music. Baby." But although she drops a naughty word here and there, you won't find a parental-advisory sticker slapped on this new disc. In these days of flashing Janets, skanky Britneys and, well, Courtney Love, Stefani is the rare MTV-born role model.
After an intro featuring Stefani piano-tinkling and envisioning a white-picket future, the opening "What You Waiting For?" sends the singer shattering through the looking glass. Her head dizzied by a techno beat, Stefani goes back and forth between what she thinks she wants for herself ("You're a super hot female, you got your million-dollar contract") and what society expects of her ("Born to blossom, bloom to perish / Your moment will run out 'cause of your sex chromosome"). It's the same internal debate Stefani had on No Doubt's "Simple Kind of Life," but this time she decides to dance, dance, dance with her Harajuku girls -- Harajuku being a ritzy Tokyo shopping district where kids go to glam out -- instead of fret, fret, fret about ticking clocks.
Almost every song here has been produced to gloriously over-the-top heights. Dr. Dre works the soundboard on "Rich Girl," the cut on which Stefani makes like Topol in a garter belt -- "I'd have all the money in the world, if I was a wealthy girl" -- and Eve unleashes some reggae-style toasting. On "Hollaback Girl," ubiquitous producing team the Neptunes dress Stefani up like a high school cheerleader, and she has a blast rah-rahing attitude over a swaggering fight song. "Luxurious," a hip-hop chill-out produced with No Doubt bassist Tony Kanal (Gwen's former flame), rolls along like a stretch limo, and the sample of the Isley Brothers' "Between the Sheets" will be very familiar to any Notorious B.I.G. fan.
The 35-year-old Stefani is a child of the '80s, so there's also a bunch of tunes that would sound just right over the credits of a John Hughes movie. The mid-tempo love song "Cool," produced by R&B master Dallas Austin, confirms that Stefani is the Cyndi Lauper of our times. She pushes it real good on the Salt-N-Pepa-inspired "Crash." "The Real Thing" is essentially a lush update of 1986's "Bizarre Love Triangle."
Stefani's envelope-pushing approach does get her into trouble on the album's finale, "Long Way to Go," a clunky, Casio-beaten duet with OutKast's Andre 3000. It's supposed to be an interracial love song, but the lyrics ("It's beyond Martin Luther / Upgrade computer") are too stupid to pack any punch. Still, the rest of "Love. Angel. Music. Baby." is so clever, so much mood-enhancing fun, it would take more than one dud to wipe that Cheshire Cat grin from your face.