Review Summary: Rock Steady is possibly one of the most dissappointing albums I've personally heard, especially when following up the masterpiece and solid follow-up in Tragic Kingdom and Return of Saturn Respectively. No Doubt's worst effort yet.
Albums that become truly universally classic are few and far between. Of the past fifteen years, I can only name a few that will be considered genre defining. Due to its enormous popularity, System of a Down
’s self-titled will surely be part of this list alongside (if there is any justice in this world) Frances the Mute by The Mars Volta
. Californication may slip in there in the fray, due to the Red Hot Chili Pepper
’s explosion of popularity spawned by that album. One thing is for sure though, Tragic Kingdom by No Doubt
will be well known for the third wave ska explosion of the mid nineties which allowed for bands like Rancid, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and Reel Big Fish to achieve commercial success. For true music connoisseurs, it won’t be the horn filled, ska-revival, radio anthems that No Doubt will be considered classic for, but the solid song writing and originality in tracks such as “Tragic Kingdom” (arguably one of the best rock songs in recent memory) and “Don’t Speak”. It’s quite hard to believe that a band that showed as much promise as No Doubt had to go and make such a mediocre album like Rock Steady.
Rock Steady is No Doubt’s fifth proper full-length, the follow up to the merely good Return of Saturn. After the masterpiece that is Tragic Kingdom, it would seem nearly impossible to make an album that compared. Return of Saturn is a valiant effort, but still a bit of a short coming. That said, the downward trend continues with Rock Steady. As the title suggests, much of the new disc is filled to the brim with Jamaican influence, something that might be considered a welcome change by some fans, if performed well. Unfortunately, instead of incorporating a major reggae or rock steady influence, No Doubt made the detrimental decision to incorporate a majority of dance hall influences. As opposed to the use of traditional rock instruments, they opted to use drum machines, synthesizers, and samples through much of the album. That’s not to say that the album is completely devoid of organic instrumentals, but they are extremely downplayed compared to their earlier work. This change seemed to almost foreshadow Stefani’s decision to proceed with a more hip-hop and R&B influenced solo career.
As for the music, Rock Steady is not all hip-hop beats and drum machines. One of the standout tracks on Rock Steady is the synth driven, mid-tempo rocker “Don’t Let Me Down”. Driven by a solid drum beat and simple rhythm, “Don’t Let Me Down” is classic No Doubt; A solid pop-rock track that places the spotlight on Stefani’s vocals and juxtaposes them nicely with solid, although not particularly extravagant, backing music. Although this song doesn’t particularly fit well with the rest of the album, it is quite a welcome departure from the monotonous drone that plagues this album.
“Underneath it All” is one of the newer tracks that is worthy of recognition. As opposed to most of the other tracks on this album, “Underneath it All” is a successful foray into dub-reggae, with a relaxing island guitar laying the foundation for the song, as well as some light-hearted horn work. It also features an interesting cameo by modern dancehall legend Lady Saw, who compliments the song well with her verse and adds some excellent harmonies. While “Underneath it All” may not be the quintessential No Doubt single, it is quite an interesting song, and shows that No Doubt still have a shred of originality left in them.
“Platinum Blonde Life” begins with a nice catchy guitar riff which leads into another solid pop-rock song, similar to “Don’t Let Me Down”, but sans the synth in the foreground of the song. Lyrically, it is nowhere near Stefani’s best, but it does have a nice message about willful ignorance and the danger to society that it imposes. Drummer Adrian Young is at the spotlight of this song at points, providing a solid back beat through most of the verses and choruses while throwing in some interesting fills during the instrumental sections. Towards the end of the song, the synth becomes increasingly more prevalent, without being overpowering, but still providing an interesting melody that juxtaposes Stefani’s voice quite well. “Don’t Let Me Down” is easily one of the instrumental highlights of the album.
But for all of the good songs on the album, it wouldn’t be a mainstream pop-rock album in 2001 without being chalked full of useless filler songs and crowd pleasing singles. “Hella Good” is the second single from the album, and can pretty much be described by the words “monotonous garbage”. Sure, it has probably the bass highlight of the album with the solid funk groove from Tony Kanal, but it also has that horrendously overpowering and superfluous synth line through the chorus. The synth is boring, uninteresting, and just badly produced. It has an interesting guitar line through most of it, complements of Tom Dumont (arguably one of the better mainstream guitarists of recent times), but the chorus is just inexcusably bad. Shut up Gwen, and keep your dancing escapades to your solo work. No one cares about how you are going to keep dancing after people tell you not to. They are far too concentrated on the synth that sounds like a malfunctioning trash compactor destroying their ear drums.
If “Hella Good” isn’t enough to make you contemplate suicide, take a listen to “Making Out”, which unfortunately sounds like a Gwen Stefani solo b-side. Not only is this song overproduced, but it features the worst musicianship on the entire album, replete with a repetitive drum beat, painfully simplistic bass line, and some of the most irritating synths ever recorded. The acoustic guitar interlude is welcome, but isn’t nearly interesting enough to save this song from being a complete and total waste. It’s a good thing that Stefani decided to take time off to do her solo project, because those inexorably bad ideas that she’s been tossing around in her head are starting to taint a decent band.
“Waiting Room” is one of those…wait, which song is that again" Oh, right, it’s the one that sounds like a stripped down version of “Making Out”. As if that song wasn’t bad enough the first time around. The additional harmonies from Prince are actually pretty nifty, but other than that, don’t bother with this one.
As for the rest of this album, it’s really inescapably mediocre. The dancehall influences that are quite prevalent on this album are completely monotonous. Most of the tracks on Rock Steady fall into one of two categories. Either they are the same redundant dancehall-influenced songs, or they sound like Gwen Stefani solo b-sides. The first single, “Hey Baby” is redeemable, solely because it adds some much needed variety and insane catchiness. While the album does have a few standouts, the introduction included due to the amazing vocal work by Stefani, the bad and the repetitive outweigh most of the good on the album, and while it’s unfortunate to say, No Doubt has fallen into one of the worst territories for a popular mainstream rock band. No Doubt-the masterminds behind Tragic Kingdom-have produced a slab of generic and boring dancehall and hip-hop influenced rock. With their new release due out in 2008, hopefully it will be a return to form, with some of the intelligent and introspective rock songs that we came to know and love from one of the more original rock bands of the nineties-No Doubt.