Gwen Stefani may be channeling Scarface-era Michelle Pfeiffer on the cover of The Sweet Escape (Interscope), but her second solo outing is squarely rooted in eighties pop, with a little bit of Sound of Music thrown in.
While the bizarrely alluring first single, "Wind It Up," has Gwen yodeling and sampling "The Lonely Goatherd," the title track (produced by and featuring Akon) is a veritable kitchen sink of new-wave references, cramming in chimey keyboards, punchy brass, tambourines, and a catchy "whoo-hoo! yee-hoo!" refrain. But the nostalgia doesn't end there. "U Started It" is a well-executed Prince homage, with its sultry vocal melody and synthesized strings, while "Orange County Girl" has Stefani rapping through her life story: "A lot of things have changed but I’m mostly the same / These are a few of my favorite things."
But while the standout tracks on "The Sweet Escape" are undoubtedly unique, most of Stefani's pop/hip-hop hybrids start to sound saccharine after just a few listens. For the rest of my take,
"Now That You Got It," one of several Neptunes-produced songs on the album, is a skittish hip-hop experiment that feels grating and repetitive, while the danceable "Fluorescent" suffers from synthesizer overload. One of the most disappointing tracks, however, is the sugary-sweet "4 in the Morning." Despite its party-all-night perspective, the somewhat generic melody could very easily be mistaken for 1990s teen girl pop. So while yodeling over hardcore rap beats may be weird, at least its edgy, and I like my Gwen with a little bit more edge.