Release Date: Jun 16, 2017
Record label: Capitol
It's been half a decade since last we heard anything from Beth Ditto, former frontwoman and firebrand spearheading garage dance punk favorites the Gossip. Much has changed in the intervening years, but Ditto's voice has remained as strong and unapologetic a presence as ever. For her first full-length release under her own name—2011 saw the release of a well-received self-titled EP—Ditto largely jettisons the fiery punk elements of her previous group in favor of a smoother, more well-produced blend of dance music, soulful vocals and a slight return to her Southern roots.
A fter 17 years of firebrand queer feminist punk, former Gossip singer Ditto embraces her southern origins on her solo debut. Though dreaming of Muscle Shoals with an Elvis sneer, the likes of the Dusty-in-Arksansas In and Out, which deals with the realities of marriage, and the swaggering funky soul of Fire are, of course, still punk sharp at heart. A couple of songs hang too much on their belting choruses, but moments such as the disco-Stones shuffle of Oo La La and the unabashed, dreamy balladry of Love in Real Life more than compensate, and it's a comfort to hear Ditto's wise, dauntless voice once more.
If history will largely remember boundary-pushing Washington art punks Gossip’s career for four-minutes of pure dancefloor genius (that’s ‘Standing In The Way Of Control’, natch), then powerhouse singer Beth Ditto’s first solo effort should go some way to reminding people there was always more to the trio than that. Veering from the sultry strut of opener ‘Fire’, through heart-on-sleeve romance (‘In And Out’), balls-to-the-wall pop (‘We Could Run’) and melancholy heartbreak (‘Lover’), ‘Fake Sugar’ paints Ditto as a more diverse, often even restrained artist than the larynx-shredding punk aggressor of the mid-00s. That said, the more familiar nocturnal stomps of ‘Go Baby Go’ and ‘Do You Want Me To?’ are still the record’s angular highlights but even so - ‘Fake Sugar’ remains, at times, a surprisingly sweet listen.
It may now be over ten years since The Gossip first came to mainstream attention with their 2006 breakthrough Standing in the Way of Control, but the dance grooves and funk flecked basslines of songs such as "Listen Up!" helped form a template that served them and the many who followed in their wake very well. One of the band's hallmarks was always Ditto's strong and soulful vocals, and as such it's no surprise to hear her debut long putting them at the forefront. With its opening, stuttering guitar groove, first track and lead single "Fire" will automatically appease those who've had their interest piqued by Dittos' past muscial adventures.
During the '00s, when she fronted post-riot grrrl rockers the Gossip, Arkansas-bred singer Beth Ditto could be one of the most explosive vocalists around, a tumultuously raw belter and an overpowering stage presence. With the Gossip no more, Ditto's solo debut is a continuation of her former band's evolution from garage-y primitivism to a more polished sound where Ditto's vocals approached a smoother grandeur sometimes akin to Laura Branigan or Adele. Her solo debut links that big ambition back to her personal roots, for a wide-roaming vision of Southern rock and pop, ranging from Sixties soul to Seventies punk to Eighties soft-rock to a more modern danceability, at times suggesting Blondie if they'd got their start at Muscle Shoals.
Gossip was a great showcase for Beth Ditto, if a slightly confining one by the time of the group's final album, A Joyful Noise. On her solo debut, Fake Sugar, she doesn't try to re-create the magic of her former band; instead, she takes Gossip's defiance in directions that underscore her independence as an artist. Working with producer Jennifer Decilveo, Ditto embraces the Southern roots she ran away from when she moved to Olympia, Washington to form Gossip, as well as the punk, disco, and pop the bandmembers embraced before they called it a day.
Beth Ditto is a presence: she makes that known for damn sure. Ever since her dance-infused punk trio Gossip surfaced in 1999, it's been near impossible to forget the singer/songwriter. As a self-described "fat, feminist, lesbian," Ditto's voice has been bold and necessary when it comes to body politics, and LGBTQ and human rights. Her powerhouse vocals, wingtip eyeshadow and curve-hugging dresses have made her iconic not just in music, but in the fashion world as well.
I think I'd be heartbroken if it ever emerged that Beth Ditto 'fixed' her vocals in the way a hefty percentage of vocalists currently do. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with the concept of tweaking the occasional bum note. And, as has been discussed endlessly, auto-tune has become more of a weapon of choice than a beauty aid these days anyway.
It makes perfect sense and no sense at all that Beth Ditto's debut solo album is a pastichey southern rock record. It works because her voice, that raunchy Arkansas holler, was made to embellish Muscle Shoals grooves and electrify honky-tonk barnstormers--a combination that she never quite pulled off with her old band Gossip on their early garage rock albums. But it doesn't work because why is Beth Ditto, one of the most radical bandleaders of the last decade, turning her hand to a genre safely lagged in schmaltz? That was apparently the point.
The heyday of Beth Ditto and Gossip seems like a million years ago now – those heady days in 2006 when nu-rave apparently ruled the world and a ridiculously rambunctious Soulwax remix of Standing In The Way Of Control became synonymous with the Channel 4 show Skins. In truth, that song became a bit of an albatross, one that the band never really escaped the shadow of, despite some similarly excellent material later in their career. Now that Gossip are seemingly no more, it’s time for the inevitable Ditto solo career, and if there’s one artist who’s always seemed destined to head out alone, it’s Beth Ditto.
Gossip fans beware, this is not the same Beth Ditto that used to belt out garage-punk bangers; this is a brand new, mature Beth Ditto and this Beth Ditto is embracing her Southern roots. Ditto's vocals are as recognisable as ever: her raspy, whisky-soaked tone fits perfectly on the heavily Americana-influenced tracks that form her solo debut Fake Sugar. If Ditto's aim here was to reinvent herself as a modern-day country queen then she has very much succeeded.