Album Reviews: The Sweet Escape by Gwen StefaniGwen Stefani likes her pop music with a big side order of weird. The very first track of her sophomore album, The Sweet Escape, starts off with yodeling, then interpolates elements of "The Lonely Goatherd" from The Sound of Music with a drumline tattoo and a twisty electro bassline. Yes, underneath all the weirdness, "Wind It Up" is essentially "Hollaback Girl Part 2," but you gotta admit -- nothing else on the radio sounds anything like it.
The problem with The Sweet Escape -- and it's a minor problem, because Stefani is still more talented by far than any other pop diva of her generation -- is that there's not enough weirdness. Too much here sounds like Love Angel Music Baby leftovers -- and while you can't blame Stefani for the fact that L.A.M.B. is already the most widely imitated pop album of the past decade (see Rihanna, Fergie, Nelly Furtado, etc.), you can blame her for imitating herself, as she does on throwaway tracks like "Orange County Girl" (a.k.a. "Luxurious Part 2") and "4 in the Morning" (a.k.a. "Real Thing Part 2").
The best songs on Sweet Escape tend to be the ones that pair Stefani with new collaborators, who apparently inspire her to stretch beyond the L.A.M.B. template. Akon's love of classic girl-group R&B rubs off on her for the delightfully frothy title track, and Keane's Tim Rice-Oxley gives her a chance to reach for actual pathos on the tear-jerker synth-pop of "Early Winter." And producer Swizz Beatz gives her a better hip-hop track ("Now That You Got It") than the Neptunes -- the duo who brought you "Hollaback Girl" but fail to rekindle that heat on five attempts here (although "Yummy" comes close).
Still, as sophomore slumps go, this one is pretty mild, and Sweet Escape is filled with moments that are more entertaining than nearly anything else on the current pop landscape. Plus, how many other superstars out there are writing songs about the frustrations of dropped cell phone calls ("Breakin' Up") or the anxieties of discovering you're pregnant ("Don't Get It Twisted")? - Andy Hermann
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