Punk-rock bands Gossip and bloc party share the concept and dynamic of the earliest version of Blondie in that the musicians and the vocalists seem inseparable from each other as entities. That bloc party's Kele Okereke and Gossip's Beth Ditto are both outhe reluctantly and she with a celebratory flourishreally is beside the point. What is the point is the music and, with new albums and recent shows here, that point has been redirected. Gossip's A Joyful Noise (CBS Records) and bloc party's Four (French Kiss Records) do succeed in there way just so long as you don't expect past glories.
Gossip has the most to lose or gain since its last outing, Music for Men (CBS Records), yielded the smash "Heavy Cross." In a span of five albums the band has evolved beyond the niche of being that scruffy band from Arkansas, and the most obvious component of that change is Ditto. A woman who not only champions positive body image with ferociousness but also has an atypical voice for punk/hard rock, she has never presented herself as someone to be taken lightly. She's got the soul pipes of a young Etta James and the sassy tone of a mature Dusty Springfield, with an attitude to burn.
In this age where qualified white soul goddesses seem to be sprouting like weeds (Joss Stone, Adele and even Kelly Clarkson on a good day), Ditto sticks out by dent of her personality and her embrace of glamour on her terms. After all, this is a queer punk who appeared nude on the premiere edition of Love Magazine and contributed an advice column to The Guardian on body image ("What Would Beth Ditto Do?"). That both publications are British points up the fact that Ditto is ahead of her time stateside, but whether we non-queer backwards americans get it or not doesn't diminish the point. None of which is a bad thing in itselfbut if only the new A Joyful Noise was as forward as Ditto's fashion sense.
The first two singles, "Perfect World" and "Moving In the Right Direction," are what throw Noise off track. Smooth, assured, processed and, for lack of a better word, bland the two songs are pop at its most calculated. Yes, Ditto sounds extraordinary, the hooks are irresistible and the beat will force you to shake your ass, but the songs lack the flavor of primo Gossip. "Get A Job" saves the album by reminding usand especially the bandwhat Gossip is really about. With synth beeps, snatches of ragged guitar, a back beat to die for,and Ditto sounding spiky, the song is a brilliant mess that throws the rest of Noise into stark relief.
On the other hand, Gossip's show at The Bottom Lounge was anything but predictable, processed or bland. After a brazen set of hard country from Bonnie Montgomery (yes, her rip through Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" was positively demonic) and a blunt soul workout from queer quartet Magic Mouth (no, the tambourine in vocalist Stephfon Bartee's hand did not get a break from getting whacked against his massive thighs for the entirety of the set) that climaxed with a slinky lounge remodel of the Pet Shop Boys' "West End Girls," it was clear that this was the queerest show of the year. Diana Ross' and Kelly Clarkson's gigs at The Venue earlier this year could only be compared as polite gay get-togethers, because once Gossip got onstage the lavender spilled over like a tsunami.
Dressed in a form-fitting polka-dot dress, Ditto tore through "Love Long Distance" with a vengeance but by the second song, "Moving In the Right Direction," she stripped off that frock and the place went apeshit. You had to appreciate that Ditto was rocking vintage Aretha Franklin glam from the '60s (specifically 1967's Lady Soul cover) because, although she was on fire and dressed for it, she ultimately didn't give a shit about sartorial elegance. She was so lost in the moment that it was hardly surprising that the songs from Noise came to life, or that even though she seemed to tire midset the thunder from the enraptured audience never flagged. Borrowing a phrase from Magic Mouth, it was like going to "gay church."
bloc party's new Four, its first in four years, goes in the opposite direction of A Joyful Noise in that it's harder, bleaker and edgierto a fault. Granted, this is the band that got into a public feud with the Gallagher Brothers of Oasis when they were THE rage coming out of Britain, and cheeriness and pleasantries seem hardly to be one of their overt personality traits. (Noel Gallagher called bloc party "indie shit" in an interview but Okereke got the last laugh when he referred to the brothers as "those inbred twins" within minutes of Oasis' public break-up at a major music festival.)
But Four's opening tracks, "Then He began to Lie" and "3 x 3," are full of boom, clang, noise and clutter to the point of distraction without melody or direction. Hearing Okereke's voice in all that ruckus is a delight but it's the only thing that pulls you into the music. Listening to chunks of the album actually felt like forced labor, which is hardly the point of listening to music in the first place. Worse is the dour nature of the lyrics that seem to celebrate misery. On "Coliseum," Okereke moans "Got nightmare walking on two legs/there's a word for people like us..." and the feel of much of the record is off-putting.
"Octopus" has the same gloomy lyricism ("This is the point where you look the other way/You done lost your mind") but the melodies, counter melodies and barrage of sounds actually coalesce into an irresistible whole. It sounds like what the rest of Four was aiming for but misses.
Contrary to his image as unapproachable and distant Okereke was cheeky, charming, glib and downright cuddly on stage. Like Gossip, bloc party's rip through Four's songs gave them drama and fire and made them come to life. (I had to go back home and re-listen to Four to make sure that I heard it right the first time). If Four lacked the hard-edged allure of, say, "Banquet" or "Helicopter," it took on an entirely different life of its own. Here's hoping that Gossip and bloc party will record live albums from these tours for all of posterity.
Heads up: Queer fave Diamond Rings will hit The Empty Bottle for a show Friday, Oct. 26. For those who want some bite in their rockabilly, Wanda Jackson will hit The Double Door on New Year's Eve.