A funny thing happened to No Doubt's Gwen Stefani on her way to irrelevance: She became relevant again. After the snow-cone pop of last year's Return of Saturn proved to be an artistic and commercial comedown from 1995's career-making Tragic Kingdom, No Doubt's future was suddenly in doubt. The teen girls who once flocked to the 32-year-old Stefani as a groovy role model seemed to ditch her for the fresher-faced likes of Pink and Nelly Furtado. In the meantime, Stefani guested on singles by Eve (''Let Me Blow Ya Mind'') and Moby (''South Side''). And irony of ironies, those tossed-off appearancesand not the painstakingly produced Return of Saturnvaulted her back into the public eye.
Stefani's newfound appeal was partly visual; in the videos for those songs, she was, more than ever, an inflatable blond doll come to life. But the musicMoby's gossamer electronica and Eve's hard-bounce hip-hopalso placed Stefani's voice in a new and more arresting context, far removed from her group's often cloying ska-pop.
No Doubt were no dummies. Seeking to capitalize on Stefani's resurgence and new club cred, they raced into the studio with a slew of producers and knocked out Rock Steady in, what was for them, record time. And in another irony, this beat-heavy quickie turns out to be the best album they've ever hatched. Picking up where those Eve and Moby rhythms left off, Rock Steady mostly ditches ska, not to mention the overthink of Return of Saturn, and replaces it with doses of the leaner, meaner pop No Doubt was born to make.
On Return of Saturn, Stefani presented herself as a star conflicted about her life and career choices, one who wondered if she would ever find the perfect mate and marry. No wonder the younger tier of her fan base couldn't relate. Rock Steady steers clear of such somber patches and instead finds Stefani returning to her boy-crazy, party-hopping inner teen. It's a role she was born to play. And the newly revitalized bandbassist-keyboardist Tony Kanal, guitarist Tom Dumont, and drummer Adrian Youngare with her all the way. She's giddy with lust in ''Hella Good,'' a hard-pumping strut that comes off like a belated sequel to Madonna's ''Into the Groove,'' and she pines away for her out-of-town lover to the glistening William Orbit synth-pop of ''Making Out.'' The single ''Hey Baby'' finds a soiree-stuck Stefani sipping tea and coolly observing the mating rituals of her fellow revelers, and its shout-out chorus, which echoes the come-ons of the boys and girls, is big, bustling, and irresistible. One of the most hip- hop-infused tracks on the album, it's a kicky little thing.
The bandwith the help of producers and veteran beatmakers Nellee Hooper (Soul II Soul, Björk) and Sly & Robbiekeeps the music sharp and focused. Everyone seems to realize that without a little meat on the bone, Stefani's Kewpie-doll voice can be awfully grating. So they pump up the volume, the bottom end, and whatever else is at hand. As a result, they fire up some deep dub bass on the reggae-rooted ''Start the Fire'' and the title song, and layers of metallic, Garbage-style brawn on the stream-of-consciousness ''Platinum Blonde Life.'' The producers keep the frills few and far between, which makes them even more effective when they are employed. The exquisite ''Running,'' a head-over-heels love paean (inspired, one imagines, by Stefani's longtime rock steady, Bush frontman Gavin Rossdale), sounds as if the band is playing inside a music box. It could be a contender for the coolest wedding song ever.
Always suckers for excessive arrangements, No Doubt still manage to mess with a good thing. They collaborate with Prince on ''Waiting Room,'' a slinky jitterbug about anticipation that's more alluring than anything he's done in recent years. But they also join forces with former Cars leader Ric Ocasek on ''Don't Let Me Down,'' which is an attentive but pointless simulation of that band's new-wave oingo-boingo. And once more, on a few tracks, they haul out vanilla-flavored ska when they should be extending their experiments in dance and club music. No Doubt will never be classified as one of pop's landmark bands; there's still something oddly flimsy about them. But like rock Martha Stewarts, their party-throwing skills improve with each new gathering. B+