Gwen Stefani

The Sweet Escape (Interscope)

Gwen Stefani is still pushing the limits of ridiculousness on The Sweet Escape; after all, it takes a person quite secure in her self-confidence to bring back yodeling as a viable chorus hook. But the aforementioned von Trapp-fest ("Wind It Up") is actually the worst song on her second solo effort, a flamboyant sore thumb on an otherwise excellent disc whose tunes genre-skip nimbly from '80s synthpop to modern hip-hop to two-tone ska. What's most striking, though, is that Escape's variety is an asset rather than a liability — and that Stefani finally sounds comfortable enough in her pop-chameleon skin to rely on songcraft over shtick. There's "Early Winter," a longing breakup song with light piano flurries that resembles Aimee Mann's 'Til Tuesday salad days; "4 in the Morning," whose sleight-of-hand trip-hop gives off vibes of early-'90s girl-group R&B; and even "Wonderful Life," where iced keyboards and Stefani's gothic-chanteuse vocals scream Violator-era Depeche Mode. The No Doubt vocalist isn't quite as successful when she acts like a hip-hop bulldog (the embarrassing "Breakin' Up") — but that's mainly because her unself-conscious sense of fun and adventure, coupled with Technicolor tunes, are her real strengths.

 
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