Gwen Stefani trades in her Fiddler on the Roof soundtrack for The Sound of Music (and her Harajuku girls for the von Trapp clan) on her sophomore solo outing, only this time the allusions are a little less pervasive, if not less bewildering. Julie Andrews’s “The Lonely Goatherd” is the jumping off point for The Sweet Escape‘s gaudy lead single, “Wind It Up,” but Stefani’s primary muse is another famous blonde from the movies: Michelle Pfeiffer’s Elvira Hancock. It’s fitting, as The Sweet Escape is a decidedly more modern (read: urban) record than its retro-dance predecessor, Love. Angel. Music. Baby., and many in the hip-hop community have pledged allegiance to Scarface, adopting Brian De Palma’s gangster flick as their own and hailing Al Pacino’s titular character as a modern tragic hero.
Aside from the hip-hop angle (courtesy of The Neptunes, Swizz Beatz, who plies Stefani with the instantly contagious “Now That You Got It,” and Akon) and the straight platinum do and sunglasses Stefani sports on the cover, though, The Sweet Escape is far from a fully-realized concept album. History will likely view The Sweet Escape as a retread of Stefani’s well-received solo debut, but it shares that album’s general inconsistency and, thus, its peaks and valleys. The Neptunes, who produced L.A.M.B.‘s biggest hit, “Hollaback Girl,” are behind almost half of the album, with mixed results: The downright wacky “Wind It Up” attempts and fails to recapture the success of “Hollaback,” which is partly responsible for the recent parade of minimalist, atonal hits like Fergie’s boorish “London Bridge,” while the “Milkshake”-esque “Yummy,” which finally gives a name to Pharrell’s percussive minimalism (“This sounds like disco-tetris,” Stefani sings), would have made a far less divisive choice for a first single.
Pharrell’s understanding of melody is elementary at best—“Breaking Up” is a half-formed zygote of a song that should have been aborted—so it’s refreshing to hear Stefani in her more natural habitat: Keane’s Tim Rice-Oxley co-penned the cool, ‘80s convertible ballad “Early Winter” for the singer and, like the Tony Kanal-helmed tracks (“4 In The Morning,” the aptly-titled “Fluorescent,” and the reggae-hued “Don’t Get It Twisted”), the results seem less forced and much less self-conscious. It’s not that The Sweet Escape is an unwelcome diversion or that it comes too soon on the heels of Stefani’s debut (it’s been two full years), but it’s starting to feel like No Doubt’s future—you know, the one left in question after 2001’s Rock Steady, the band’s third consecutive creative zenith—is being squandered amid all the solo stargazing.