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No Doubt, ‘Push and Shove’ (Interscope)

No diggity, No Doubt
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: September 25, 2012
Label: Interscope

No Doubt were, and are, a party band. In the 1990s, there was some confused suspicion that they might be somewhat political, since Gwen Stefani did push-ups onstage and had a song where she sarcastically said she was just a girl and not to let her drive late at night. But their best album, the one you should own, is 2001’s Rock Steady, which features 12 songs, six producers, Prince, and a lead single with a chorus that goes, “You got me feelin’ hella good so I’m gonna keep on dancing.” Therein, Stefani’s obsessive pouting over the difficulties of love, her party-girl melancholy, her longing for domestic bliss (“You seem like / You’d be a good dad”) were retained, but the band fractured into a dozen different versions of itself, a dozen Mt.-Fuji-style views of the plastic presence of Gwen Stefani.

From the beginning, she was the kind of frontwoman you suspected was being held back — not necessarily by the talent or chemistry of her band, but by its very nature, which couldn’t broaden fast enough to do her weird charisma justice. (Bands, like battleships, turn slower than people.) Stefani’s wobbly coo — at its best when smeared across sticky, glowing ballads, like the warm drone of “Simple Kind of Life” or the gorgeous sway of “Underneath It All” — deserved more a few albums’ worth of tenuously melodic pop, horns and trashy guitars and occasional strings all mixed with ska-punk’s strange ugliness. Rock Steady was the band’s peak because they offered themselves up to an army of tinkerers to provide the variety they never could manage themselves: the clinical, inventive, technocratic variety of a pop album.

When Stefani did go solo, in a lurid, Gaga-presaging frenzy of cartoon wardrobes and mute Japanese handmaidens, her voice and personality explored their freakish peaks, and her music embraced the ’80s melodrama that No Doubt had only flirted with. (The band’s last single before this recent reappearance was a terrific cover of “It’s My Life,” by melancholy synth-pop artisans Talk Talk) Pop Stefani’s insouciant dementia might not have been sculpted as well as, say, Ke$ha’s would be a few years later, but spread across two solo albums are several songs you probably like more than a little, including the endlessly adorable “Bubble Pop Electric.” Rock Steady came out 11 years ago. Stefani has a fashion label (L.A.M.B.) and a perfume (Harajuku Lovers) and the rest of the usual accessories, including children. Most of the people I know could name either one or zero other members of No Doubt.

So this reunion is nothing particularly spectacular. But there’s something to the idea of the freed and fulfilled Stefani returning to the less agile hands of her old band: After some time apart, they could improve each other. And they do. Gwen’s a cooler presence now than she was on her own, but her adventures in American pop excess were educational — descending from the hallucinatory pop ionosphere that she always had to strain a little to occupy, she brings to the solid old ground of dance-besotted pop-punk everything she’s learned about holding a room, or a microphone, by sheer force of personality.

And her band, which began to loosen amid the magpie clutter of Rock Steady, are tugged a little further toward the mutable and deranged world of 21st-century pop. Not that they leave their roots. The No Doubt of Push and Shove have two tendencies, two loves, both of them following logically from the No Doubt of yore: the pillowy romanticism of ’80s synth-pop and the dopey, weirdly clean-cut hedonism of ’90s ska-punk. “One More Summer” and “Easy” throw themselves into glazed, blissful melodrama; “Push and Shove” and “Sparkle” leap, or lope, to horns and upstrokes. Gwen raps. (“We be on another level like we doing yoga.” Oh, well.) In general they’re a better Talk Talk than they are a Madness, and always were, but the best songs — the long and satisfied single “Settle Down,” for content and patient dancers; the nearly ridiculous “Looking Hot,” a refinement of their late-period hit “Hey Baby” — synthesize these two urges, the two long ends of the party: Its bobbleheaded opening the melancholy comedown.

Meanwhile, Gwen’s imagined love affairs, when they’re not likely metaphors for her relationship with No Doubt (“We’re so lucky to be holding on… / You and me got gravity”), are less fraught than they used to be — less fun when they’re working but less shattering when they’re not — even if you do frequently have to make your peace with a line like, “We can swim the Milky Way like star-crossed lovers do.” There are more good songs on Push and Shove than on any other No Doubt album than Rock Steady, and it’s not as fractured as that Lazy Susan of a record; Stefani’s experience lends the band the wit of pop (without the emergency battery of producers).

This isn’t a great album, but it is a good one, in a year quietly blessed with a small crop of good records (Metric, Gossip) with dreamy synths and girls up front. It’s also — in its confidence, its playfulness, and the slightly stoned degree to which it is relaxed — No Doubt’s most accomplished party.