CD review

Gwen Stefani

Love. Angel. Music. Baby.

Universal Records

Never known as a powerhouse vocalist, No Doubt's Gwen Stefani takes a risky move by attempting to do it all on her first solo CD. The result is a mixed bag, with half the material benefiting from Stefani's charming voice and the contemporary production and the other half sounding like Madonna channeling the Chipmunks.

Devotees will disagree, but ska music is the simplest and most basic of all pop music forms. When No Doubt was an actual ska band, it didn't matter that Stefani's voice was so thin. It was ska, for pete's sake, where attitude and charm can (and usually does) trump the music.

She must have known that, because this album sounds nothing like No Doubt. Stefani apparently wants to be a pop star like Madonna or Beyonce, and she actually gets away with it for awhile. She was either foolish or savvy enough to enlist an all-star cast of producers such as The Neptunes and Andre 3000. She also salutes the old school by enlisting the help of Lisa and Wendy from Prince's old band, The Revolution.

On cuts such as "Rich Girl" and "Cool," she does her best Madonna imitation and it works. But when she overreaches, as on "Hollaback Girl," an ill-conceived attempt to give Stefani a streetwise image, it's just embarrassing and horrible.

Imagine the Madonna of "Express Yourself" but with the vocal chops of Debbie Gibson or Britney Spears and the charm of none of them. It just doesn't work.

Nor does layering Stefani's voice in overdubs to make it sound richer. The technique, ubiquitous ever since Janet Jackson rode it to success in the '80s, doesn't work for Stefani.

On the other hand, there's "Luxurious," yet another recontextualization of the "Between the Sheets" and "Big Poppa" riff, in which Stefani actually pulls off what she sets out to achieve. She takes the material, familiar to any R&B fan, and reclaims it as her own.

It's too spotty and generic-sounding to recommend totally, but Stefani fans may enjoy Love. Angel. Music. Baby. The rest of the world will wait to see if her voice is as big as her ambition the next time around.