From Gwen Stefani, A Madcap Mash-Up

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 5, 2006

It takes a certain amount of nerve to open a contemporary pop album with a quote from "The Sound of Music" -- more specifically "The Lonely Goatherd."

But Gwen Stefani is nothing if not audacious. And so we find the pop star channeling Maria von Trapp at the beginning of her remarkably uneven new album, "The Sweet Escape," on a song called "Wind It Up" -- yodeling like she's Julie Andrews or something.

"High on a hill with a lonely goatherd," Stefani sings. " Lay ee odl lay ee odl lay hee hoo."

It's quite possible that Stefani quoted Rodgers and Hammerstein just to give copy editors fits, because "The Lonely Goatherd" doesn't seem to have any real relationship whatsoever with the rest of "Wind It Up." A playful tune about sassy girls and the boys who adore them, it's all pa-rum-pa-pum-pum drum lines, video-game bass lines, symphonic synth swells and mindless adolescent lyrics. ("They like the way we dance, they like the way we work, they like the way that 'L.A.M.B.' is going 'cross my shirt.")

It's even more silly than it looks in print, but it's also sort of brilliant -- a lightweight state-of-the-art pop confection that's the perfect combination of crazy and craft -- yet another masterly solo stroke by Stefani, who has become an absurdist mass-appeal pop specialist during her extended hiatus from the popular Orange County band No Doubt.

This is, after all, the same woman whose 2004 solo debut, "Love.Angel.Music.Baby," included a playground chant in which Stefani was compelled to spell out "bananas," and another track that interpolated "Fiddler on the Roof." (What's next, a sample of Sondheim's "Send In the Clowns"?) Anyway, Stefani scored hits with both songs, "Hollaback Girl" and "Rich Girl," and the electro-pop album succeeded both critically and commercially.

Stefani's terrifically frivolous charm offensive continues on "Sweet Escape's" more adventurous entries, including "Don't Get It Twisted," a pregnancy song that matches circus music with a lurching, reggaeton-inspired beat, and "Yummy," which is about . . . well, nothing, really. The track's nonsensical lyrics have all the nutritional value of a Necco wafer, and it's delicious -- thanks to Stefani's playful spirit and, especially, the production flourishes of the Neptunes, the state-of-the-art studio team behind "Hollaback Girl" and "Wind It Up."

For "Yummy," Chad Hugo and partner Pharrell Williams, who makes a rap cameo, built an irresistible, almost tribal rhythm track that Stefani herself celebrates in the droning lyrics: "Sex and sugar is the flavor / Ovens and beaters and graters / Beats made of bongos and shakers / It's time to make you sweat." (Later she observes, "This sounds like disco Tetris." Though upon closer inspection, it actually sounds like another Neptunes production, the great Kelis tune "Milkshake.")

While the album is incredibly accessible, as is most everything Stefani touches, it's also a stylistic mess; it's almost as if the fashionista reached into her closet and plucked pieces at random, then decided it was, in fact, a sensible, stylish outfit. It most certainly is not. Completely directionless, "The Sweet Escape" sounds like an iPod shuffle gone mad. Show-tune references collide with pulsating rock ballads ("Early Winter"), skittering and buzzing hip-hop songs ("Now That You Got It," "Breakin' Up"), plus multiple Madonnaisms: The title track, "Wonderful Life," "4 in the Morning."

"I'm lying here in the dark," Stefani sings on the latter.

"I'm watching you sleep, it hurts a lot."

After recording "L.A.M.B.," which she described as "a stupid dance record," Stefani has decided to try to get at least somewhat serious. Her efforts aren't exactly Dylanesque, but one does not listen to a Gwen Stefani album for its lyrical poetry and Deep Meaning. Her music is not a place to search for high art and philosophical musings, and that's exactly the point: At its best, it's fluffy escapist pop.

But sometimes, Stefani completely misfires. Consider "Orange County Girl," an autobiographical number on which she raps about how she's the same as she ever was -- you know, still just Gwennie from the block. Insofar as she's never been much of a rapper, that's probably true: The song is abysmal, dragged down not just by Stefani's flow, which makes you long for Fergie, but also by the Neptunes' drab and uninspired production.

And "Early Winter," written with Keane's Tim Rice-Oxley, is one of the album's smarter songs, a serious track that sounds gorgeous, but it's emotionally unconvincing, with Stefani sounding robotic and detached while she works through the bereft lyrics. Where's the lonely goatherd when you need him?

DOWNLOAD THESE: "Yummy," "Don't Get It Twisted," "Wind It Up"

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