No Doubt

The Singles 1992-2003 (Interscope í03) Rating: A-
When I first heard and saw No Doubt during the retro-ska craze of 1995 (remember the Mighty Mighty Bosstones?), I figured they were good for about 15 minutes. However, I'm man enough to admit that I underrated both the star power of sexy lead singer Gwen Stefani and how good the band actually is. At the very least they released consistently strong singles, the best of which all appear here, including a brand new song. Unsurprisingly, that song, a fitting cover of Talk Talk's "It's My Life," was accompanied by a stylish video and became another smash hit. What most people don't realize, however, is that No Doubt hasn't always had the Midas touch. By the time of this albumís release they'd already been around for 17 years, overcoming the suicide death of their first lead singer (John Spence) and the departure of their primary songwriter (Gwen's brother Eric) before breaking though on their second album, Tragic Kingdom. By then the band had progressed from an "unassuming ska outfit" (from the liner notes, which include an intro essay and comments about each song) to a "sprightly pop/punk/reggae/'80s retro musical mix" with a definite new wave twist. Another thing the band had to overcome was the breakup of the 7-year relationship between Gwen and bassist Tony Kanal, which formed the basis of most of the lyrical content of Tragic Kingdom. No, Gwen was not happy, and the pissed off "Just A Girl" became something of a feminist anthem (though musically it was anchored by Tom Dumont's naggingly infectious riffs), while "Sunday Morning" also features an animated melody accompanied by nasty lyrics about Tony. The propulsive "Spiderwebs" was a hit as well, but "Don't Speak," a poignant breakup ballad, was the monster hit, and for good reason. After all, it has a pretty melody, and Gwen sings it for all she's worth. She may not have an especially powerful voice, and in fact she sounds somewhat squeaky at times, but her voice has character and sincerity going for it, and she's become a better and better singer over the years. For example, there's no denying her heartfelt, yearning vocal on "Simple Kind Of Life," one of several singles from Return Of Saturn, which took a difficult 5 years to deliver. Part of the problem was resentment caused by Gwen getting all the attention, as No Doubt are a talented band whose members are all important (drummer Adrian Young is perhaps the band's most impressive player instrumentally). The band eventually got things together, however, and though the album didn't take off like Tragic Kingdom, ironically proving a relief to a band who had become overburdened by the pressure of so much success, songs such as "Bathwater," an eccentric, brassy stomper with an odd swampy sound, and the frenetic "Ex-Girlfriend" showed a band continuing to evolve (note the flamenco guitar interlude on the latter) by attempting new things, all while retaining their signature sound. A mere year later came Rock Steady, which saw the band reclaim their superstar status. Freely working with a multitude of producers and even including some guest vocal appearances, this album spawned several more significant singles, the biggest being "Hey Baby," a fast paced, energetic exercise in Jamaican dancehall, and "Underneath It All," a sexy reggae tinged track that became the band's second #1 hit (the first of course being "Don't Speak"), in large part due to its slinky Stefani starring (surprise, surprise) video. Rock Steady's Thompson Twins inspired "Running" is a pretty ballad as well, while the lone song from the band's self-titled debut, "Trapped In A Box," also holds up surprisingly well. This compilation isn't faultless, however, as a few of these 15 songs fall below the high standard set by the rest of the album. Still, No Doubt are seemingly one of the few enjoyable radio bands we have left, and I was actually excited when I got this album. This surprised me, since No Doubt is hardly the most exciting band around. However, they are creative songsmiths and charismatic performers, and never were their strengths better showcased than on this rock-solid singles collection.

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