Think of the ultimate female pop icon. Who are you thinking of? Madonna? Right. Well, so is everyone else, apparently. Lady Gaga has been emulating her to the point that she's brushing shoulders with a libel case. Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. have been cosying up to her, acting as her cheerleaders, both literally and metaphorically. And now, Beth Ditto seems to have made a conscious decision to join in with the Madonna-worship, with 'A Joyful Noise.' This is Gossip's fifth studio album and although they have been arching towards a mainstream sound for some time, this could well be the polished, streamlined, characterless step too far that alienates the band's hardcore fans.
It seems as though every pop star in the land is pulling out their Madonna references right now and there's no doubting that Beth Ditto's got the chops for it. With a nod and a wink, she's emulating the gothic pop of 'Like A Virgin' era Madonna, in the video for 'Perfect World.' Whether or not she's going to be able to shoehorn the band into the narrow demands of mainstream pop and come out smiling still remains to be seen, though. At first glance, it feels as though 'A Joyful Noise' is anything but; the sound of a band that have sacrificed their soul (musically, aesthetically, ethically) in the name of 'progress.' The album is produced by Xenomania's Brian Higgins, a pop producer who, to all intents and purposes is more accustomed to transforming relatively bland personalities and creating something bombastic and entertaining. Faced with the challenge of working with Beth, Brace and Hannah Billie, it seems as though he's turned the task on its head and done the exact opposite with Gossip.
There's something uncomfortable with listening to Beth Ditto proto-rapping "I'd love to stay and party but I gotta go to work" at the start of 'Get A Job.' It won't rest easy with the ears of many long-term fans of the band. That said, the driving force of Gossip is the band's vocalist and frontwoman, Beth Ditto. And Beth Ditto was not put on this planet to make anyone comfortable. She's not here to make us rest easy. That's not to say that she's beyond criticism, but fans bring their own baggage with them and if this is the sound of Gossip being true to themselves, then so be it. Musicians shouldn't be tied to the expectation of others, after all.
Aesthetics, production and direction aside, though, 'A Joyful Noise' suffers from its own internal homogeny. There is little to differentiate between the songs, melodically or otherwise and Beth's vocals feel so restrained (when you know what she is capable of) that the lyrics cease to portray much in the way of meaning. Hannah's drumming is reduced to a metronomic non-entity, and Brace's guitar sounds are all but buried in the mix.
In 2003, when Gossip unleashed the soulful fury of 'Movement,' the world sat up and listened. When the band made commercial, yet artistic progress with 'Standing in the Way of Control,' and 'Music For Men,' their fanbase took to its feet and applauded. In 2012, the band who started out as emotional, palpable punks, that you could reach out and touch seem to have wrapped themselves in so much sheen that all of that emotion has flatlined. They are an unreachable polished pop thing. You can no longer touch them because the doctor doesn't want you putting your grubby little hands inside the Xenomania-branded life support machine that's somehow keeping them alive.
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