Tuesday, September 25, 2012

No Doubt's Return with "Push and Shove" Examined

On the set of the "Settle Down" video
Blondie's reconvene in 1982 with The Hunter, despite possessing a few underrated moments, was a turning point for the group. Undeniably, Blondie had embodied a certain point in popular music history and their gusto to dare was infectious. Autoamerican (1980) made them pop savants, The Best of Blondie (1981) closed their first run, but was preceded earlier in 1981 by Deborah Harry's avant garde album Koo Koo.

When The Hunter dropped, it happened when Blondie's music and image (whether right or wrong) was no longer the "go to" for popular music stimulus. At this point I'm sure many readers are wondering why I'm discussing Blondie in what seems to be a No Doubt review? All of this is because No Doubt follows a hauntingly similar trail to their punky predecessors. Like Blondie, No Doubt was led by an electromagnetic lady in Gwen Stefani, but she was not the band itself. The men were as integral to the mix as Stefani: Adrian Young (drums), Tony Kanal (bass), and Tom Dumont (guitars).

No Doubt's last record, 2001's Rock Steady, like Autoamerican saw No Doubt's artistic ambitions ripen outside of the genre of ska where they originated. Later, No Doubt wrapped up their initial run of singles (see The Singles 1992-2003), and Stefani released Love. Angel. Music. Baby. (2004) and The Sweet Escape (2006). Stefani's confessed "art projects" endured acclaim and derision, and her band mates themselves stayed busy with their own gigs in the interim. So when No Doubt began the touring rounds three years prior to the release of Push and Shove, their sixth album and first in 11 years, questions hovered. How would a group so attached to a past period find audiences (core, casual, and nonplussed) in 2012? Could they beat the same fate that befell Blondie when they decided to get back in the ring?

L to R: Adrian, Gwen, Tony, Tom
Push and Shove only makes one mistake: its title. Presentation is everything. While it is a great title, it doesn't sum up the whole of the album once consumed. To explain, the record doesn't "push and shove" as much as it gives off a "sparkle," ironically a song title on the project.

Push and Shove's mass deals in a shiny batch of new wave, alternative '80's and '90's pop-rock gloss so well prepared that the previous acts that have used the techniques cannot be recalled. The tricks though, chiming synths, layered vocal swatches, and perfectly placed guitar/drum accents, are as magical as they ever were.

The mood of Push and Shove, reflective and melancholy, matches Return of Saturn (2000) slightly for somberness with beguiling ballads like "Easy," "Gravity," and the curtain closer "Dreaming the Same Dream." Whereas Return of Saturn dealt with fear of the unknown adult world, the emotional undercurrent of the new LP is grounded in reminiscing. Remember, all four members of No Doubt are married with children now. The lyrics, Stefani can still pen pensive, make the album's release during the first week of autumn prime for looking back to the recently departed summer. Stefani hasn't lost her vocal energy, one of the last jewels in the rusting American pop crown, she catwalks her band's musical paths.

No Doubt get rowdy on a select section of cuts for those worried that Push and Shove might be too mellow. The first single, an already definite No Doubt classic, "Settle Down" is a dually Asiatic and Jamaican baked good that knocks, rolls, and rides as confidently as "Hey Baby" did in the fall of 2001. The title track, with toasts from Busy Signal and Major Lazer, kicks out a pronounced ska-lite rhythm. The kick is thanks to the two "phantom" members of No Doubt: Stephen Bradley and Gabrial McNair. Tour mainstays since the mid-
'90's, their trumpet and trombone are staples of the No Doubt sound and dance on the titular cut and "Looking Hot's" middle eight with welcome joy.

"Settle Down"
Directed By: Sophie Muller

Thankfully, not a trace of the streamlined "thump-a-thump" of current Top 40 is heard, but there is a careful commercial sheen (courtesy of co-producer Mark "Spike" Stent) present. Such patience to not "rock out" (frustrating) or "sell out" (commendable) will land No Doubt somewhere in the middle of the 2012 popular music landscape. Push and Shove is a record about relevancy based on No Doubt's perfected talents. Four out of five stars.-QH

[Editor's Note: Push and Shove is available in all music retailers, for information on different editions and other No Doubt updates visit No Doubt Official.-QH]

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