Aural Pleasure

Gwen Stefani is critic-proof. It doesn’t matter what ridiculous thing she dresses herself in, or what sort of equally ridiculous lyric she sings, people always smile, call her a fashion icon (even though no one else has ever attempted to dress like her), and, these days, shake their asses to her hybrid of hip-hop, drum lines, and new-wave excess. She is either one of the most perfectly manufactured images in music today, or one of the most authentic, and it’s doubtful more than a few dozen people in the world know the answer to this mystery. That said, her sophomore effort The Sweet Escape is as good as her multi-platinum debut Love. Angel. Music. Baby., but, like her debut, not nearly as good as people will say it is.

Stefani has figured out a way to make dance music that even critics like, offering little besides her instantly recognizable voice and slick, innovated production (producers are listed like songwriters below songs on the CD art) to legitimize songs that are almost always marred by lyrics that read like lyrics a mildly retarded second grader might have conceived. She even yodels on her first single, “Wind It Up.” Is this supposed to make her a musical daredevil, the same way singing about bananas and her own feces did on “Hollaback Girl”?

Nevertheless, The Sweet Escape offers up one or two great songs (“4 in the Morning” and “Early Winter”), two or three good songs (including “Wind It Up” and the title track), four or five OK songs (stop caring at this point), and one or two that are just god-awful (such as “Yummy”). This ratio isn’t terrible, but it certainly doesn’t warrant the accolades Stefani receives and, if she stopped obsessing over the inane, would probably deserve.

— Cole Haddon

Pete Townshend might be the most conflicted icon in rock history not named Kurt Cobain. For every pronouncement The Who guitarist-songwriter has ever made about music, spirituality, sex, politics, or youth culture, he’s inevitably turned around and said the exact opposite.

For example, Townshend twice trashed Beach Boy Brian Wilson in 1966, first for the classic album Pet Sounds, and later for the classic single, “Good Vibrations,” suggesting that Wilson was living in a never-never land. Three years later, in a Rolling Stone interview, however, he went out of his way to rave about how the Beach Boys’ music had never let him down.

These inconsistencies can make Townshend the flesh-and-blood human being a bit exasperating, but they’ve also made Townshend the artist highly fascinating. On Endless Wire, the first Who album in 24 years, Townshend doesn’t waste much time addressing his inner conflict: “Are we breathing out or breathing in/are we leaving life or moving in?”   

In a way, Endless Wire picks up where the Who’s presumed swan song, 1982’s It’s Hard, left off. That album closed with “Cry If  You Want,” Townshend’s group-therapy invitation to baby boomers to exorcise all their angst. On Endless Wire, Townshend continues to console his age group, and his new music benefits from the fact that he no longer cares to connect The Who to contemporary tastes.

Some of the best moments could just as easily fit on a Townshend solo album, particularly the delicately acoustic “God Speaks, Of Marty Robbins.” The same applies to the disc’s most head-scratching moments, namely Townshend’s in-character Tom Waits impression on the meandering piano ballad, “In the Ether.”

What hits you repeatedly, though, is how much Keith Moon and John Entwistle are missed. Much as Roger Daltrey was the band’s mouthpiece and Townshend its visionary, much of the group’s relentless power came from the way Moon and Entwistle constantly tried to top each other. Without either of them, even Townshend’s most aggressive statements feel like the musings of a quaint, SoCal folk-rock group (think Buckingham/Nicks, before they joined Fleetwood Mac).

More than 40 years after giving British mods a soundtrack and finding beauty in feedback, Townshend is still talking about his generation. But that generation is too busy snapping up albums of Rod Stewart and Barry Manilow covering done-to-death pop standards to bother listening.

— Gilbert Garcia

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