No Doubt Pushes and Shoves Toward… Pop Music?

(published September 28, 2012)

No Doubt is typically defined as a ska band with pop and punk influences — think Blondie or The Selecter meets the later work of The Clash and The Specials. You’ll often hear horns and intricate basslines in synchronicity with simple drums playing at their own pace, as harsh-sounding guitars and the occasional synthesizer melodically follow powerful vocals about youth, heartbreak and frustration. Each time No Doubt comes out with an album, critics view the band as distancing itself from its garage-ska roots. Unfortunately, in its new album, Push and Shove, No Doubt moves away from this edge altogether toward pop music.

Anticipated since 2008, the first song off Push and Shove, “Settle Down,” was released over the summer and offers a new sound — a mélange of instruments similar to the track “Spiderwebs” on the band’s third album, Tragic Kingdom. However, “Settle Down” creates an artificial, Bollywood-esque sound through a range of overpowering synthesizers. The lyrics, “I’m trying to get a hold on this,” sound like an adolescent plea commonly heard on Tragic Kingdom, and there is a ska-sounding syncopation among instruments. Overall, the song seems torn between two visions for the band: its previous ska-punk sound and its newer dance-pop influences.

This theme, unfortunately, holds true for much of the album. The second song, “Looking Hot,” is so processed that one could have thought it belonged to Pitbull, Ke$ha or another pop, synth-heavy artist. It relies so heavily on electric keyboards and the like that you can hardly hear the bass or any other instruments. The following song, “One More Summer,” sounds more like No Doubt’s original sound, but also like a typical pop song one might hear on the radio. This theme holds true for many of the other songs on the album, including “Undercover.”

The title song of Push and Shove sounds like a dance remix of old No Doubt, filtered through the upbeat guitar melody and the occasional horns, but this sound disappears and moves toward processed synthesizers. There’s hardly any bass, only a simple, steady kick drum. Where did those classic, raw instruments go? These songs are catchy but ultimately lack the cohesive sound that makes the group’s older material so special.

This is not to say that Push and Shove is a bad album. After the album’s title song, the record presents a more cohesive body of work. Yet even the better songs on the album sound more like songs from Stefani’s solo career, which was much more pop than No Doubt’s music ever was. “Gravity” is slower and is reminiscent of Stefani’s “Cool,” written about her seven-year relationship with the band’s bassist, Tony Kanal.

The best song on the album is “Sparkle,” with a reggae beat, casual horns and catchy bassline paired with unprocessed drums that actually get back in touch with No Doubt’s roots. But overall, even the best parts of Push and Shove are much less exciting and melodic than albums produced earlier in the band’s career.

While Push and Shove does have certain high points, its redeeming qualities do not make up for the rest of the thematic conflict, lyrically and melodically, on the album. Both lack the depth and creativity shown in No Doubt’s earlier work. With this album, No Doubt appears to have moved away from its ska-punk vibe toward good pop music — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the band loses the unique edge of its older material.

Even though No Doubt has often been seen as moving in a more pop-sounding direction after each new album, Push and Shove has pushed beyond that line into pop music. Previous fans of No Doubt may or may not be satisfied with the band’s new sound; they’ll either like its new direction, which is influenced by other popular music, or they’ll crave the up-strummed sounds of the guitar and the easily audible bass. Push and Shove is worth a listen, but don’t expect to be satisfied.

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