ALBUM REVIEWS : ‘Kingdom’ Is Band’s Best Yet, No Doubt : **, NO DOUBT, “Tragic Kingdom” <i> Trauma</i> /<i> Interscope</i>
It took more than three years and a false start or two to get this album done, but “Tragic Kingdom” represents a mission accomplished for No Doubt.
The talented Anaheim band has found a way to weave its diverse stylistic strands into catchy, adventurously but cohesively structured songs that improve markedly upon the diffuse, rambling songwriting of its two previous CDs.
In doing so, No Doubt has not compromised a musical reach that finds it confidently meshing reggae and ska with edgy New Wave guitar rock and throwing in touches of metal, Motown funk, a handful of Beatles references and even a bit of neo-Dixieland. The band is bright, hard-hitting and kinetic, as sharp production captures the core, four-man instrumental team and adjunct horn section at their best.
Singer Gwen Stefani is not a greatly gifted natural talent and must compensate for a thin, sharp, nasal voice that some may find bleaty and off-putting (she often sounds like a cross between a breathy Madonna and, on the New Wave side, a quirkily insistent Lena Lovich). But listeners who give her a chance will find a theatrically able, emotionally alert singer whose lack of a powerhouse voice doesn’t stop her from hitting some complex emotional chords.
Stefani has the savvy to get across the anger and helpless frustration that seethe under a veneer of pained, self-lacerating humor in “Just a Girl.” The subject is the subjugation of women through violence and fear, but Stefani’s irony and indirection make this a more artful and resonant salvo than if she had rendered it as an openly wrathful indictment.
“Spiderwebs,” “Happy Now?,” “Hey You” and “Sunday Morning” are further examples of the band’s improved craft. They help carry the album’s thematic current, in which enthusiastic music is married to a cautionary outlook as No Doubt depicts flawed people and relationships breaking under the test of stress.
Canny arrangements of Stefani’s multitracked voice provide a poppy lift, while the deft, muscular work of guitarist Tom Dumont, bassist Tony Kanal and drummer Adrian Young keep slickness at bay.
No Doubt also can be appealing when it slips off its alterna-rock shoes and offers “Don’t Speak,” a conventional take on the heartbroken pop ballad form that sounds like something a more serious-minded Mariah Carey might attempt.
One question now facing No Doubt is how it will cope live without Gwen’s brother, Eric Stefani, who left the band after “Tragic Kingdom” was finished. On record, his keyboards supply much of the suppleness, texture and spice that complement his band mates’ muscular edge.
* No Doubt plays Nov. 24 to 26 at 9 p.m. at the Troubadour, 9081 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. $9. (310) 276-1158.