Gossip, ‘A Joyful Noise’ – Album Review
At 31, Beth Ditto has nearly done it all: posed nude on a U.K. magazine cover, opened designer fashion shows, gone triple gold in Germany, eaten squirrels, said Gaga was for 5-year-olds. The lead singer of Gossip has helped reframe the question of body and its image in popular culture, and she has been vocal in her support of the LGBT movement. It's been three years since 'Music for Men' was released. Will a landmark fifth album be among her accomplishments?
Yes and no. ‘A Joyful Noise’ is a peaks-and-valleys album: When it’s good, it’s really good; when it’s bad, it’s utterly forgettable. This is a record that will be snacked on for singles rather than consumed wholly as an artistic statement. While vestiges of Gossip’s punk rock beginnings remain, this disc is unabashedly pop.
The Gossip began as a post-punk project, combining Ditto with guitarist Brace Paine and drummer Hannah Blilie, naming Siouxsie and the Banshees as influences. With ‘A Joyful Noise,’ Gossip adds U.K. pop-czar Brian Higgins as producer, a man credited with reinventing British pop. It seems the band's making in a firm bid for Top 40 charts. While there are those chart-grabbing singles-to-be, on the whole, the record grows monotonous -- where a proper pop disc should be pulled taut, this one sags in spots. Let us begin with the good.
The syrupy synths of ‘Melody Emergency’ announce a sexy, playful, heavy vibration before Ditto’s bubblegum voice alights upon the beat with seductive phrases. While the line “You may try but can’t deny / The animal in you” might have been sung a thousand times before, it sounds fresh before the crunch of Paine's distorted guitar.
Ditto’s voice has some room to breathe in ‘Casualties of War,’ where a nonchalant drum machine, jangly bass and strummed guitars frame Ditto’s voice. The spare instrumentation accomplishes more in its restraint compared to the straightforward pop numbers, as Ditto's stand-strong-after-heartbreak ballad soars into its chorus.
With ‘Love in a Foreign Place,’ the Gossip take a cinematic turn: Imagine Cyndi Lauper starring in 'The Bourne Identity,' hungover from an epic night: “In my dress in the night before / Fearing the come down.” She sees the Londoners or Berliners or whoever walk by, not noticing the hungover siren in their midst: “They look right through me as I’m passing by / Not even so much as an evil eye.” Not only does the song sketch a scene, it can pack a dancefloor, a union of form and function at a Madonna-like level -- maybe.
But for all of these hits, there are misses. Opening single ‘Move in the Right Direction’ rehashes the after-breakup anthem for the umpteenth time, and does little to move the form forward; ‘Get a Job’ is a bit too Gaga for its own good; ‘I Won’t Play’ should have taken its own advice. While Higgins has drawn comparisons to Phil Spector, the producer could have left a few of these on the cutting room floor.
Even with those miscues, ‘A Joyful Noise’ is indeed joyful, though not the band's best effort. It may pack a dance floor or two, but more likely will make you sing way too loud in your car. Gossip’s at their greatest when they’re doing something new with their established sound -- the Motown style of ‘Horns’ brings out Ditto’s swagger, the Timbaland-like downcast beat of ‘Involved’ makes her sweet voice fatal -- and it’s for these explorations that the record earns its place, if any at all.