It says so right there in the bio: A rock album that all others will be judged against this year was recorded in the same spot where Lionel Ritchie created "Dancing on the Ceiling."
Bear Creek Studios no longer has so much to answer for. To others, that name may conjure visions of an ex-Commodore tripping the light Astaire-style on some drywall. To me, it’s now known as the birthplace of Standing in the Way of Control (Kill Rock Stars).
In my household, up until now, the word on the Gossip has been that their recordings don’t catch the wildfire of their live shows. When Beth Ditto and company first toured the United States with Sleater-Kinney, Ditto was already hinting she could make punk’s great siren of the ’90s sound small, but you wouldn’t find proof in the pinched, monochromatic quality of the 2001 debut album, That’s Not What I Heard, on which each track largely resembled the one before or after it.
The first big hint of a difference came with 2003’s Movement. Some people think its songs aren’t as strong, but the first things I noticed were that the drums had more kick, Ditto’s voice didn’t sound like it had been shrunk by a cramped studio and crappy mic, and the ballad "Yesterday’s News" showed her blues were getting deeper and darker. C’mon, I thought. Bring it.
Then, early last fall, I walked from Bimbo’s 365 Club’s lush lobby into the main room and saw and heard the Gossip that you’ll find on their amazing new album. Ditto had ditched the swirl ’do and basic black fashions for shoulder-length straight hair and a striped, strapless dress. Together with guitarist Nathan Howdeshell and excellent new drummer Hannah Blilie, Ditto launched into what I now know is the title track, and it was obvious from the bumptious hooks and beats that the Gossip were communicating with post-punk disco’s rawest queer spirits, both alive (ESG) and dead (Arthur Russell). This was a band reborn.
Except "born again" doesn’t quite fit the Gossip, who’ve been true believers in a lot of great things — like the power of a woman who says what she wants to say and does what she wants to do — from day one of their life in the Arkansas swamplands. Strong enough to initially work over both Olympia labels that begin with a K, their guitar-drums-voice approach may have owed some spare change to the Spinanes, or come across as the fun flipside of Heavens to Betsy’s extreme angst, but when it first hit town, you best believe it scorched Fifth Avenue, Washington Street, and the heartless Martin.
Standing in the Way of Control isn’t rocket science — just a recording by Guy Picciotto, of Fugazi, that finally captures the sweaty, untamed energy of Ditto and company in concert, letting you start your own dance party whenever and wherever. With a band this great — this alive — that’s no small feat. The strut of Ditto’s voice is lighter and there’s more snare happening in the rhythms. On "Listen Up!" a cowbell kicks in behind her as she schools children: "There’s some people that you just can’t trust … on the playground, you learn so much."
Ditto’s awesome voice is a source of pure energy and uplift — there’s something wonderful about the way it acquires a razor’s edge as it reaches higher on a ferocious anthem like "Yr Mangled Heart." Yet while she sounds upbeat, her words on these songs are haunted. The title track’s stance of defiance amid the everyday-and-endless brainwash bullshit of the Bush era is typically stressed-out.
One song later, on the somewhat Romeo Void–<\d>ish "Jealous Girls," Ditto’s wrestling with a feeling that kills girl love and doing so in way that goes beyond sloganeering — she explores the pain of the emotion, and the paths that lead to and away from it, before tacking a declaration of independence ("No matter what the price, they can’t take me") to a chugga-chugga finale.
"Coal to Diamonds" could almost be a ballad by the Soul Queen of New Orleans, Irma Thomas — from its empty nighttime atmosphere to its sudden, bereft ending. Even if the instrumentation doesn’t move beyond thrift-punk sparseness to include a string arrangement, Ditto is still more than equipped to carry the song on her own. One thing is for sure: There isn’t a more powerful or charismatic frontwoman — frontperson — in rock these days. Karen O? Please. Frankly, Ditto could teach most of today’s slick R&B ladies — with the exception of Mary J. and Keyshia — how to go rage as they race up and down the scales.
At the moment, the Gossip have 4,305 friends on MySpace. That number is about to grow. Listening to Standing in the Way of Control, I can only back up what one of those friends has to say: "It even got the little hair on the back of my neck dancin’."
THE GOSSIP CD-RELEASE SHOW
With Numbers, Tussle, and Dynasty Handbag
Jan. 27, 9:30 p.m.
Bottom of the Hill
1233 17th St., SF