Tuesday, April 23, 2013

I Cynically Call Love. Angel. Music. Baby. "An Overpriced Ad For Harajuku Girls."

The Good: One or two musical moments where Stefani's voice breaks through.
The Bad: Overproduced, Frontloaded, Dull, insipid lyrics
The Basics: Solidly below average, Love. Angel. Music. Baby. is a generic pop-dance album advertising Gwen Stefani's sense of style.

Some years ago, in the mid-1990s, No Doubt exploded on the music scene when lead singer Gwen Stefani was showcased as the promotional highlight of the group's album Tragic Kingdom (reviewed here!). The album made No Doubt huge in mainstream pop-rock and Gwen Stefani the face of the group. Some months ago, I reviewed Stefani's current charting album, The Sweet Escape (reviewed here!) and it occurred to me that I had not reviewed her solo debut, Love. Angel. Music. Baby.

With twelve tracks clocking in at 48:18 minutes, Love. Angel. Music. Baby. spawned four singles that did fairly well on the charts (and two that did mediocre) and the album sold seven million units worldwide. It's still a pretty terrible album. Frontloaded with singles "What You Waiting For?," "Rich Girl," "Hollaback Girl," and "Cool" (in the order they were released even!), Love. Angel. Music. Baby. is a boring, overproduced album that barely exposes the talents of Gwen Stefani.

And yet, this pop-dance album is arguably the results of Gwen Stefani's musical vision. All twelve tracks are co-written by Stefani and while she plays no musical instruments, she is credited for "Creative Direction." In the case of Love. Angel. Music. Baby., "Creative Direction" seems synonymous with "Product Placement Direction." The title of the album, for those (like me until a little while ago) not in the know, is a reference to her clothing line, L.A.M.B. Moreover, L.A.M.B. derives many of its designs from the Japanese fashion scene, epitomized by Harajuku Girls. Harajuku Girls are referenced on the first two tracks before getting their own, insipid tribute midway through the album. Stefani's music publishing company is called "Harajuku Lover Music."

The net result, hearing this album well after it has peaked and disappeared from the mainstream mind is that Love. Angel. Music. Baby. comes across as a self-serving advertisement for Gwen Stefani, the product. This is not a showcase of Gwen Stefani, musical artist, so much as Gwen Stefani, entrepreneur. It calls to mind the parody Stefani did of wealthy celebrities for Moby's song "Southside" from his amazing album Play (reviewed here!).

Stefani bucks the trend of loading up the album with guest performers (there are three featured artists appearing on tracks on this album), but she highlights instead the producers of the individual tracks. This is, in fact, drawing attention to one of the greatest weaknesses of the album. Love. Angel. Music. Baby. features eleven different producers or producer combinations (only Tony Kanal alone produces two tracks) over the twelve tracks, which leads to remarkably different musical quality and sound over the course of the album. As a result this is less a cohesive album than a collection of singles.

To wit, "Bubble Pop Electric" is a techno-dance track that, outside the refrain, lacks anything remotely suggestive of a tune. The track has no real music to it backing much of the vocals. Conversely, "Cool" and "Serious" both have music to them that illustrates a sensibility for harmony and melody, even though both are keyboard-driven tracks. The second best-selling track of the album, "Rich Girl," even uses the melody from "Fiddler On The Roof's," "If I Were A Rich Man" (though it is uncredited).

The point here is that there is a hint of music on some of the tracks. Yet, too often, Stefani cheats out on the music and opts for the easy hook. Take "Hollaback Girl," the cheerleader-beat track that is less sung than chanted. Heavily censored on most radio stations for the repeated use of "shit," "Hollaback Girl" illustrates well Stefani's obsession with creating a hit song rather than music of enduring greatness. Are the two mutually exclusive? No. However, there are obvious hooks engaged here and the song is basically a fight song/cheer that says nothing other than cliches. Stefani writes and sings such obvious lines as "All the boys want to be the winner, but there can only be one. / So I'm gonna fight, gonna give it my all. / Gonna make you fall, gonna sock it to you. / That's right I'm the last one standing, another one bites the dust" ("Hollaback Girl").

On the few tracks that Stefani presents something meaningful, it does not sound like her voice. The album closes on "Long Way To Go," which features Andre 3000 of OutKast. Co-written with Andre Benjamin (he takes the first writing credit), Stefani presents a track that sounds more at home on The Love Below (reviewed here!) than on this album. Instead, Andre 3000 produces a track in his style, his voice, accompanied vaguely by Stefani on her album. The result is disappointing.

Sadly, Stefani seems most unique and comfortable on her dull track "Harajuku Girls," which is basically a rousing endorsement of Japanese subculture fashion. She sort of sings (this is another song without much in the way of a melody) about "Harajuku girls you got the wicked style. / I like the way that you are. / I am your biggest fan. / Harajuku girls, I'm looking at you girls. / You're so original girls. / You got the look that makes you stand out . . ." ("Harajuku Girls"). Because they are not mainstream, this song is fairly pointless as the strength of an allusion is only so great as the listener's ability to understand the reference. And when one looks up Harajuku Girls, what are they likely to find? Stefani's clothing line. It's self-serving and cheap. (The song does reference dyed hair and cell phones, but this is hardly unique to Japan.)

The reason Tragic Kingdom exploded No Doubt, in addition to promoting Gwen Stefani as the new hot blonde, was that the album didn't sound like anything else on the radio at the time. Instead, it was different, new, fresh. On Love. Angel. Music. Baby., Stefani opens the album with tracks that conform to today's bland, uninspired pop-rock music with the hip-hop influences that inspire melodies more focused with movement and sound than music and statement. The result is a generic pop-dance album that says little other than "Buy Stefani."

The best track is "Cool," the worst is "Bubble Pop Electric."

For other, similar, artists, please check out my reviews of:
The Dutchess - Fergie
Now In A Minute - Donna Lewis
Susanna Hoffs - Susanna Hoffs


For other music reviews, please visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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