Beth Ditto and the Gossip gang almost derail with beat-heavy ‘Joyful Noise’
Dance punksters Gossip used to be an acquired taste. Their blend of pop, rock and dance was at times abrasive, but always engaging and overflowing with personality. That was owed in big part to lesbian singer and frontgal Beth Ditto, the anti-establishment diva of our time. But in the band’s just-out fifth album, A Joyful Noise — a title that sounds like the name of a clearance bin gospel album — Ditto and gang deliver the beats with mainstream predictability before regaining their signature footing.
With subtle nods to the ‘80s and early ‘90s throughout AJN, a cloud of electronica looms over the album. Gossip creates Starck Club-esque jams, recalling both the dark and glorious sides of the time. It just takes a while to get there.
Opening with a grumbling bass line on “Melody Emergency,” AJN begins on the gritty side. Ditto simmers in her vocal prowess alongside Joan Jett-like guitar riffs, but the song doesn’t do much to get the album rolling. That responsibility is left to leadoff single and second track “Perfect World.” The dance rhythms get sophisticated on “World” and Ditto’s voice is magnetic as she goes from seductive to sonic. “World” gives major gravity to the album early on with pulsating, delicious layers setting AJN in motion.
But the next three songs take you on a rollercoaster. From the uptempo “World,” the beat pulls back with “Get a Job” only to swell again on “Move in the Right Direction.” This isn’t so much disruptive as schizo. The songs stand alone on their merits, but as an album, it’s hard to capture the exact flavor Gossip wants to evoke.
Nevertheless, “Job” reigns as the album’s brusque anthem. With robotic flair, Ditto chants I love to stay and party but I gotta go to work and then sings some of the best (and most honest) lines ever. The groovier vibe recalls Yaz as do blunt lyrics like It was adorable when you were in your 20s / Not so cute anymore now that your pushing 30. You better get a job or Who’s gonna hire you with your lack of experience / Who’s gonna wire you the last of your inheritance. Ahh, the pure snippy attitude we’re used to hearing from Gossip.
The band channels Information Society on speed in “Direction,” a track that is seriously going on the workout playlist, and echoes Inner City in “Get Lost.” This is by far Gossip’s most accessible album, and despite Ditto’s claims to find inspiration in ABBA for AJN, the songs play like the modern version of New Wave. While they hint at decades past, there is a futuristic vibe most heard in “Into the Wild” that could easily fit over the soundtracks to Metropolis or 1984.
Gossip returns to form in the final tracks. A strange move, but their harder edge is far more evident because I’m reminded that it hasn’t been here all along. Where before Ditto seemed engaged in her singing, she pushes it on the listener here and it resonates deep with lyrics like I’m not in love with you / I’m just involved with you in “Involved.”
The missing aggression that identifies with Gossip plays a weird trick. I almost turned my back on previous tracks I enjoyed, but it also made me listen closer to all of Joyful Noise. The keyboards and electronic elements go by the wayside for the band to rock out as they do in the sassed up “Horns “ and the gorgeous “I Won’t Play.”
Closing track “Love in a Foreign Place” feels most like the band’s intentions combining its electronic flair with hardcore delivery. While the trio succeeded in concocting intricate new sounds early in the album, it feels like Ditto woke up to reinforce her personality toward latter tracks and that shows most on “Foreign.”
A Joyful Noise works despite its odd incohesiveness. After a few listens, Gossip pulls together tracks that sound like they shouldn’t work together, but they do. It’s still bipolar, but it’s also magic.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 18, 2012.