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Artist: Gossip

Album: Music for Men

Label: Columbia

Review date: Jun. 24, 2009

When Beth Ditto pops up in the press, I sometimes feel guilty about liking Gossip (somewhere along the line, the “The” fell off. They’re not really a garage band at this point). Not guilty like a pleasure, because they’ve hardly devolved into pap. I feel perturbed because apparently Beth keeps kicking up a stink in England, some of it wince inducing. She’s famous over there. Not famous like Posh Spice or Martin Amis’ teeth, but famous enough for newspapers to chatter about her proximity to Kate Moss, and to put down her “punk band” as mediocre. She keeps knicker-twisting British notions of health and body image and fat-bottomed Americans. It remains unclear if the music – or the rest of her package – will translate back to her natives shores.

But it’s not like Beth’s struck out on a solo career. Gossip’s bigger than ever, and if she’s now a middling provocateur, the band hasn’t suffered from the distraction. Sure, they’ve entirely rearranged their sound – from punk-blues to indie-disco – but they haven’t changed it: We’re still talking about Ditto’s gospel wail and Brace Paine’s guitar. Her vocals have the kind of chops that emerge from the indie scene once in a generation. Brace’s style maintains an oddness that can only come from learning on the job. And as Gossip developed over the past few years from fervent DIYers to conglomerate cred, the transformation somehow felt natural. Standing in the Way of Control, the group’s last album for Kill Rock Stars, peeled away the noise of their early sound, but mostly stuck with blues structures. Then came the three big disco tracks released as singles, which only became better as they seeped into the world of remixing.

Music for Men flips the ratio. Save for a few rockers, drummer Hannah Blilie keeps it four-to-the-floor. There’s some synth sprinkled in, but unlike the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s recent trip in the same direction, there’s no need to exhort listeners to “dance ‘til you’re dead” or mention hitting the clubs. Gossip’s always been a dance band. It hasn’t stood in the way of their minimalism. The extra keyboard flourishes act like little warnings: piano house chords announce “Love Long Distance” is going to have some diva-vibrato flutter; an analog wash builds up the Foreigner-tries-New Wave feel of “Vertical Rhythm.” But there’s a lot of open space here, enough that you can already anticipate the Johnny Jewel remix.

The weak spot, as ever, are lyrics that clasp to cliches without transforming them. So we get a song about a certain four-letter-word, and lines about rain or taking chances. On the other hand, the punchline of “Men in Love” is pretty great, and Beth’s belting usually subsumes the stock imagery.

I gotta root for these kids – high school friends from the edge of the Ozarks who’ve managed to get within spitting distance of the cognoscenti, yet continue to spit at them. It will probably end in tears, and they’ll probably write a song that uses that phrase. It’s rare to see outcasts get this far without resorting to irony or despair. Refreshing, even.

By Ben Donnelly

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Standing in the Way of Control

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