Friday, April 3, 2009

April 3: No Doubt, "Tragic Kingdom"

Artist: No Doubt
Album: Tragic Kingdom
Year: 1995
Label: Trauma/Interscope

For a brief moment in the mid-1990's, the island sounds of SKA and a more laid back version of punk made a bit of a comeback within the mainstream music of the United States. Groups like Sublime, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and Goldfinger jumped onto the national scene, and things like Warped Tour were born. With their high energy, upbeat, poppy sound, No Doubt catapulted to the top of the charts and lead singer Gwen Stefani became nothing short of an icon. Their 1995 record, which was in fact their third album, Tragic Kingdom is a brilliant fusion of sound and remains one of the finest third-wave SKA records ever recorded.

Tragic Kingdom, named for the local nickname for Disneyland, was a breath of fresh air, in that it was a sweet, upbeat record in a time when mainstream music was filled with angst-ridden, morose records. Upon it's initial release, the album struggled, perhaps due to the fact that it was so out-of-the-ordinary at the time. However, about four months after Tragic Kingdom was released, it began a rapid climb up the charts, and the band became international superstars.

Though the album produced a staggering seven singles, Tragic Kingdom, and No Doubt in general, owe their success to the albums' lead single and third single. The first, the now anthemic "Just A Girl" has become nothing short of a cultural phenomena. The song is a shout against the paradigm that women were still frail and could not do things like lead a band the likes of No Doubt. Both the single, as well as Stefani's stage performance became symbols of what would become the "girl power" movement of the late 1990's. "Don't Speak," the records' third single, had impact in a number of ways. The song itself is a heartbreaking tale of the now notorious break-up between Stefani and bassist Tony Kanal. The lyrics are brilliant and the music, sometimes bordering on flamenco, are some of the finest on the record. However, the fact that the band had already reached international superstar status, and Stefani was clearly garnering far more attention than her bandmates, gave the song a second context. Members of the band had publicly stated some frustration with this fact, and the band played on this idea with the music video for the song. Though you won't find a sub-par song anywhere on Tragic Kingdom, these two singles are truly responsible for catapulting the band to the status which they still hold to this day.

Musically, Tragic Kingdom exposed the world to the catchy, buoyant sound that was exploding all over the surf and skate scene of California. The overall sound of No Doubt is spirited and upbeat, providing a refreshing break from the overall melancholy mood of a majority of their peers. The rhythm section of Adrian Young (drums) and Tony Kanal (bass) represent one of the finest pairings to come out of the 1990's. Each song finds a wonderful groove, and the songs also each have an insanely addictive "bounce." The guitar work of Tom Durmont and keyboard work of band founder, Eric Stefani round out the music and reinforce the stylistic inspiration. Pulling heavy influence from the reggae/ska styles, as well as part of the "new wave" sound, and turning up the energy, No Doubt adds a bright horn section to the traditional "rock" lineup. The horns provide an amazing addition to the overall sound of the band, and help to punctuate many of Tragic Kingdom's finest moments.

The lyrics throughout Tragic Kingdom are absolutely amazing. From songs of acceptance and encouragement ("You Can Do It") to songs of heartbreak and frustration ("Happy Now?,") the album as a wonderfully diverse group of subjects, and each song stands strong on its own. The Stefani siblings prove their talent as songwriters with lines like, " had the best, but you gave her up...'Cause dependency might interrupt..." It is these perfectly stated phrases on universal themes that garnered a fervent, worldwide following for the band. Another aspect that gave the band their fanbase was the stage presence and delivery of Gwen Stefani. Taking the groundwork that had been laid by artists like Janis Joplin and The Runaways, Stefani permanently cemented the concept of the female lead singer. Stefani possesses an extremely distinctive voice, and her vocal range is superb. With the intensity of the most accomplished punk singers and a voice to rival any other, Stefani remains an icon in music and fashion, as well as a symbol for the empowerment of women.

Most of the time, when a group tries to buck the tide and release a "new" sound that conflicts with mainstream music, the album is a commercial failure. However, No Doubt's Tragic Kingdom is so amazingly solid and catchy, the world had no choice but to embrace the album, and a resurgence of SKA occurred, the remnants of which are still felt today. The bright, full sound of the band, combined with the sensational vocal work and attitude of Gwen Stefani placed No Doubt high above their peers and the band remains one of the decades' most important groups. There isn't a band song anywhere on the album, and for this reason, and the fact that it changed the musical landscape, Tragic Kingdom is truly an essential album for every music collection.

Standout tracks: "Just A Girl," "Different People," and "Sunday Morning."

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