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"Bottom line, the effect of long gaps between releases is usually bad," says Tess Taylor of the National Association of Record Industry Professionals. "Obviously, you want quality control—you don't want to be throwing a new album into the market every six months. But anything in excess of two or three years, given how consumer tastes change, is not good. How can it be good? There were 30,000 albums released in the U.S. last year; that's a lot of other bands competing for the same consumer dollars."
But the flip side of consumer loyalty is quality musical productivity. Big-name acts these days don't exactly keep the kind of pace set by the Beatles, who released five albums during their breakthrough year of 1964. Clearly, it's a different business now—for the artists, for the record company and for the fans.
Pete Howard, publisher and editor of the respected CD-preview magazine Ice, generalizes that there is typically a two-year window of opportunity.
"About a year after a hit album, the window opens," he says. "After about three years, it's getting pretty closed again."
It will be nearly five years between releases for No Doubt if Return of Saturn really does land in record stores on April 11.
"They're at the outer edge," Howard says. "There'll always be a certain segment of the music audience waiting for their next effort, but with each succeeding year, the initial impact has less carry-over. Because of Gwen Stefani's star power—and the fact that she's stayed in the public eye—there is probably a perception that No Doubt has been more active than it has. I would think they are a shoo-in for 2 million. It would have to be a pretty bad record not to."
No Doubt insists that outside pressure, whether artistic or commercial, did not play a major role in the process of creating its new album.
"I would say we had a couple of, um, false starts," says Kanal, putting a delicately diplomatic spin on the band's split with Tragic Kingdom producer Matthew Wilder after seven tracks had been completed and the sudden arrival and departure of Michael Beinhorn, who has produced big-selling albums by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soundgarden, Hole and Marilyn Manson. One song from their work with Jerry Harrison, formerly of the Talking Heads, eventually made it to the new album. But the sessions didn't become truly productive until Alanis Morissette's producer, Glen Ballard, finally came onboard. Kanal says, "When Glen came into the project, with all his knowledge of producing and arranging, he said, 'Let's pick out the best songs and focus on those.' Together, we took those songs to the next level."
At this level, say Kanal and Stefani, they won't judge the success of the music they have made strictly by units sold, even if the music business does.
"Those are unrealistic expectations, and you do your best to keep them as far away from you as possible," says Kanal. "If our previous success afforded us anything, it was the means to make a record the way we wanted to make it—the financial means and also the opportunity to keep the record company at a distance so we could really be creative for two years. That was important. We've never had that kind of chance before."
Whatever the stresses of this process, says Stefani, they pale in comparison to the days when No Doubt had to squeeze writing and recording and performing amid the responsibilities of school and work and the looming possibility that being a band might someday become impossible. "We used to feel so guilty for putting so much time into the band—like, okay, it's already been nine years, you know?" she says with a laugh, and saying the number aloud seems to amaze her a little. "It was definitely a what-am-I-going-to-be-when-I-grow-up kind of thing. And the success of Tragic Kingdom allowed us to kind of not grow up—or to grow up as songwriters. We didn't have to think, 'Shoot, after I write that song, I better go study so I can make sure I have a future.' It was kinda rad that way."
But while they were confronting the challenges of becoming better songwriters, singers and musicians, weren't the masses of expectant fans lingering somewhere in the backs of their minds?
"No, they weren't—sorry about that," says Stefani, shrugging apologetically. "Kind of in a selfish way, no, we weren't thinking about them."
"We're not really talented enough to manufacture something that would make other people happy," says Kanal. "Whatever comes out, comes out—and then you just hope people relate to it."
No Doubt brought exactly that kind of full-speed-ahead surrender to its comeback show at the House of Blues. Stefani careened onstage like an acid-laced vision of Marilyn Monroe, her neon hair blown up into a helium bouffant, her aerobics-class kicks thrusting from beneath a slitted overcoat trimmed and cuffed in tacky fuzz. Behind her, the pogoing band did their green-and-orange jump suits proud. The crowd, roaring with approval, bounced right along. When Stefani launched into the opening vocals of a song so brand-new it is called "New," the crowd went even wilder. As if to compare responses between new and old, Stefani next fell back on "Sunday Morning" from Tragic Kingdom and followed up by taking another fresh number, "Bathwater," out for a spin.
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