No Doubt dishes disco; OK Go saves pop songs

 

I heard a pundit on one of MTV's or VH1's "One Hit Wonder" shows explain Jamiroquai's failure to reprise its one hit on these shores by blaming it on the band's decision to release a disco-oriented song. A great disco song, the pundit said, but still, a disco song. The kiss of death.

Well, that hasn't stopped No Doubt from storming the charts with "Hella Good," an unabashed disco homage complete with fuzzy synth bass and squeaky "whooo-whooo" vocal backgrounds. It's a song lifted from Rock Steady, one of the band's best-selling releases that is filled with disco nods.

And when the band strutted to the deep bass of "Hella Good" at the beginning of its show at the Allstate Arena last Friday, the crowd went absolutely wild — a sea of waving, bouncing arms.

A disco vibe hasn't hurt No Doubt's credibility at all, especially with the kids — the sea looked to be made up of mostly the 15-25 age group; many of whom were too young to even buy, or be interested in albums, when the band released its first self-titled (mostly forgotten) album back in 1992. Punk band The Distillers and Green Day/Blink 182 wannabes Good Charlotte opened the show with plenty of guitar energy.

Allstate Arena's inherent bad acoustics harmed all three bands (The Distillers inherent distortion factor made its set a wall of noise). No Doubt outshone the often spotty sound (though all the nuances of "Ex-Girlfriend" were drowned in a rumbling feedback mess), and sounded best on its slick reggae-based numbers like "Underneath it All" and "Rock Steady," as well as its Bic lighter ballad "Don't Speak."

Singer Gwen Stefani made full use of the giant background projection screen, as well as a runway that led from the stage into the audience, to preen and pose. At one point during the show, the band all gathered at the front of the runway for a slow-down "unplugged" section. In an hour and 45 minutes it pounded through most of its current album, Rock Steady, and played all of its hits – "Just a Girl," "Don't Speak," "Bathwater," "Hey Baby," "Ex-Girlfriend" and "Spiderwebs" — as well as offering a manic reminder of its past in "Trapped in a Box" in an even more rockin' run-through than the version that appeared on its first disc.

No, a foray into disco isn't why Jamiroquai failed to keep their audience. They just didn't have the tunes. Or Gwen Stefani.

 

OK Go OK Go
OK Go
(Capitol)


Do you remember the music that played the first time you saw a guy wearing a skinny tie? The kind of music that made you want to bop your head and gyrate in strange, jerky, rhythmic fits of bliss? Did you ever rollerskate to the likes of Off Broadway, Cheap Trick or The Cars? If you can answer yes to any of those questions, then you'll have a frame of reference to understand the genius of Chicago's own OK Go.

From the first notes of OK Go's self-titled, debut album, you'll be transported backwards to a kinder, gentler day. OK, nostalgia whitewashes all — maybe it wasn't kinder and gentler, but it was, at the very least, a day when three-minute pop songs with snappy guitar lines, warbly synthesizer lines and faux Brit accents dominated the day, and damn, if it wasn't great fun.

OK Go captures the best of the early '80s New Wave and transmogrifies it into something distinctly 2002. Singer Damian Kulash, Jr. not only has the innocent mop-top good looks for the girls, he also has the cynical lyrical snarl for the boys. In "What To Do" he plays with the ploys of fashion asking: "What to do?/Sweetheart, you'll find/mediocre people do exceptional things all the time/oh the ruin will do in your talented mind…could've been a genius if you'd had an axe to grind" and later suggests that "compassion's just a nicer way of looking down your nose."

He keeps a twisted smile as he plays the wounded but still adoring boytoy in "You're So Damn Hot," when he absolves a cheating hottie with a witty repartee that Joe Jackson would appreciate: "So now you're headed to your car/you say it's dinner with your sister, sweetie/but darling look at how you're dressed/You're best suggests another kind of guest…you' don't love me at all/but don't think that it bothers me at all/you're a bad-hearted boy trap, baby doll, but you're… you're so damn hot."

The album opens with its strongest track, the arena rock big-drum bash of "Get Over It," that raises the bar for every retro-refreshing power pop band to come. This is killer stuff.

In the first four tracks, the band manages to encapsulate and extoll all the best of Queen harmonies, The Cars synthesizers, and New Wave guitar riffs (think The Vapors, The Romantics, Off Broadway, Shoes…). Weezer, Self and Coward have all tried their hand at recapturing this kind of angular pop rock energy over the past few years, but nobody's managed to nail it like OK Go.

While the disc flags a little in the middle, things pick up again when they channel The Cure circa "In Between Days," on "There's A Fire," get Teen Beat cutesy singing of "candy kisses" and "buttery eyes" on "C-C-C-Cinnamon Lips" (which sounds a lot like Self) and then go on to twist a rubbery bassline into a darkly complicated rhythm gem called "Hello, My Treacherous Friends." It all caps with the appropriately titled "Bye Bye Baby," which spotlights some harmonies that would make Queen blush in envy.

Slick, fun, sassy and sharp. Chicago has given the world a new pop rock savior.

OK Go!

Watch The Tonight Show tomorrow night to see OK Go live, and check the OK Go web site http://okgo.net/ for news and upcoming tour information.