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‘Saturn’ Launches Gwen Stefani Into Orbit

NO DOUBT

“Return of Saturn”

Trauma/Interscope

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After ushering in the ‘90s ska revival and witnessing the phenomenal success of their third album, 1995’s “Tragic Kingdom,” the members of No Doubt now pause to consider questions of identity, paths chosen and potential regrets. But, furthering their status as underground-scrappers-turned-pop-stars, the Orange County quartet manages to keep things light on this long-awaited follow-up (due in stores Tuesday), even when singer Gwen Stefani mulls the inevitability of death in “Six Feet Under.”

The playful maturity comes across in “Return of Saturn,” whose title is a reference to the band’s idea that people need 29 years, the same time span as the ringed planet’s full orbit, to figure themselves out. The driving “Ex-Girlfriend” showcases producer Glen Ballard’s way of smoothing out the band’s trademark blend of rock, new wave, punk and ska without making things overly slick.

The tunes tread familiar territory in places, but the band also pulls off everything from glitter rock to Beatles-like balladry. Yet the most strikingly different of these 14 tunes are Stefani’s first wholly self-penned compositions, including the wistful, folk-pop “Simple Kind of Life.” The song is among several tracks addressing the singer’s surprisingly conventional yearnings for a domestic life she wonders about missing, and it’s kind of sweet (and maybe not so surprising) that the defiant protagonist of “Just a Girl” dares to daydream about marriage and motherhood. Thankfully, she stops short of cloying, Madonna-esque reverie, questioning in “Marry Me” whether the matrimony she has been conditioned to want is practical or desirable.

These reflections make Stefani a compelling and realistic role model, even though it’s disconcerting to hear this modern girl sing “Sometimes I wish for a mistake"--i.e., an accidental pregnancy--as if she’d prefer fate to make up her mind for her.

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But Stefani’s balance of tough assertiveness and tender passivity is part of her appeal. In pop’s current testosterone-rock climate, she practically seems brave for admitting that she sometimes feels vulnerable and dreams about the future, and that, when it comes to how she faces the world, the “Magic’s in the Makeup” that helps shield and shape her. Yet she clearly isn’t faking the determination to be herself, and that’s an important part of growing up.

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Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.


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