Where did all the happy rock and roll go? When did mainstream rock stop being clever and sexy and open? In a world where every musical style is a mouse click away, why must it close off so many possible sound colors and expression shades? Even the better nu-metal guilty pleasures and their smarter post-Radiohead relatives avoid joy and wit, fearing they might appear soft or fake, and I’m not exempting bands I love either. Like the last decade’s hip-hop, rock now too often conflates realness and death, and it’s been like this since many months before last September.
When the sons of Kurt Cobain and Trent Reznor set the paradigm for what’s become of rock, it became almost impossible to seriously consider the likes of No Doubt and Smash Mouth. Their tunes are bubblegummy, their personas intentionally goofy. Despite the sonic updates found on their new albums, Rock Steady and Smash Mouth, there’s not much about them that’s relevant in a headline way, and their timing couldn’t be worse. If wartime America has a habit of turning to escapism, it hasn’t found its solace in perky Californian pop-rock: Smash Mouth debuted on Billboard‘s Hot 200 chart at No. 48 and fell 20 places in its second week, while its sunny lead single, “Pacific Coast Party,” flopped thoroughly on every radio and video format. Thanks to Gwen Stefani’s appearance on status-bolstering Moby and Eve hits, No Doubt’s Rock Steady is bound to fare better, but its questioning, contemplative predecessor, Return of Saturn, would’ve been a better fit for this insecure season. Compared to sulky breakthroughs like Staind, Linkin Park, and Incubus, No Doubt and Smash Mouth seem silly, a throwback to the Reagan years of New Wave.
But that’s not a bad thing. New Wave may have been considered punk’s weaker kid sister, but in musical, sexual, racial, conceptual, and stylistic terms, it was often more radical and always far more embracing. Punk, as even the Ramones would admit, is the whitest rock ever, and that exclusionary legacy is still with us: Despite neo-metal’s ham-fisted hip-hop ornamentation, it’s mostly about the mob rule of unfocused rage felt by threatened, tribal-minded white guys. New Wave’s message was the liberation of individuality, and that theme is one of the few constants uniting its rainbow permutations. You could embrace any genre and mix it with your clipped guitars, futuristic one-fingered synth lines, skankin’ dance rhythms, hook-crazed tunes, punchy harmonies, and good-natured weirdness.
No Doubt and Smash Mouth are both old enough to remember early MTV’s romance with New Wave and the wacky freak show its initial thirst for newness made possible. New Wave is for them roots music, its cartoon sensibility their own. Rock Steady takes the chart-minded r&b tactic of employing a party of producers and co-songwriters, but with New Wave results: Nearly every track glistens with salutary novelty, as if the band’s unrestrained love of their record collections forced them to play magpie. As bassist Tony Kanal puts it on Rock Steady‘s CD-ROM documentary, No Doubt felt as though they’d “already done the organic rock band thing.” Although work with Dr. Dre and Timbaland was left unfinished, the album boasts the involvement of the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart, the Neptunes, dancehall-reggae kings Sly & Robbie and Steely & Clevie, William Orbit, fellow Brit art-popper Nellee Hooper, the Cars’ Ric Ocasek, and Prince. Aside from the first two, whose songwriting collaborations ended up produced by the others, these titans stamp obvious sonic trademarks on their tracks. “Waiting Room” may be a Return of Saturn outtake, but it’s the most Princely thing that madman’s touched since “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.” “Don’t Let Me Down” and “Platinum Blonde Life” evoke the Cars so accurately they seem pieced together from samples of “My Best Friend’s Girl” and “Let’s Go.”
Smash Mouth sticks with the San Jose foursome’s producer Eric Valentine, and although they start out sounding like their jovial selves on what should’ve been the Christmas single, “Holiday in My Head,” Rosie O’Donnell’s pet rock band resemble Smash Mouth less and less as the album progresses. By track six frontman Steve Harwell and pals start suggesting the melancholy side of Madness, and from then on it’s XTC, the Go-Gos, Graham Parker, Lene Lovich, and so on until their cover of “I’m a Believer,” which resembles Tin Huey’s or Bram Tchaikovsky’s appropriately forgotten 1979 renditions more than it does the Monkees’ or Neil Diamond’s. You can imagine what the programming nincompoops at Clear Channel think of all of this. Even if its blatant disco elements seem interpreted by peak-era Elvis Costello & the Attractions, “Pacific Coast Party” ‘s Barry White-y strings and dance-oriented-rock rhythm section must’ve been considered too breezy to share airtime with Creed’s maudlin bluster.
Despite their allusions to bygone bands, Rock Steady and Smash Mouth both revel in 21st-century noises, and deliver nifty electronica surprises where the ska and thrash used to dwell. They’re actually quite contemporary, albeit in an alternate universe without bin Laden or anthrax or the New Sincerity. No Doubt and Smash Mouth exist in John Hughes’s California, not the one where bridges must be protected by the National Guard. If living in the present means playing Bob Dylan all day and watching CNN all night, I’d rather swap peroxide secrets with Gwen and hit the vintage clothing stores with Steve. Who these days doesn’t need to take a holiday, even if it’s only in their heads?