When Beth Ditto, bombastic frontgrrl for Pacific Northwest dance-punk extraordinaires the Gossip, screams I ONLY WANT WHAT I DESERVE in a nuclear-powered, sky-rending howl, you might feel compelled to ponder all the influences that made such a reverential roar possible: Mama Cass, Aretha Franklin, Cyndi Lauper, Kathleen Hanna, Kelly Clarkson. Or maybe you’ll just cower in fear and awe at what might be the most distinctive and physically powerful voice powering a rock band today.
Either way, don’t forget your earplugs. Maybe a helmet, too.
The Gossip has been threatening to break through big-time for a while now — a spare three-piece combining Ditto’s soul-punk mastery with blunt Gilman-style guitar and primitive, pummeling drums. The band sharpened its teeth via early tours with Sleater-Kinney and the White Stripes, which explains a lot. But with Standing in the Way of Control (out this week on Kill Rock Stars), the Gossip — and Ditto especially — might be ready for stardom. So sez us experts, anyway, who’ve already been praising Control to the skies.
Ditto strives to keep the steady torrent of critical adoration in stride. “I think they mean we actually made a record that sounds half-assed,” she muses. “That we’ve made it to the half-assed mark.”
Indeed, Gossip records aren’t exactly Brian Wilson affairs, but this one (coproduced by Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto) sounds a bit more full-bodied, and rightfully showcases Beth’s shockingly soul-addled pipes. Though she praises riot grrl originators like Bikini Kill and the Frumpies (“One of the best bands ever, of all time”), her voice is powerful enough to better evoke the Arethas and Ettas and Billies of the world. It all mixed uneasily during her tumultuous Arkansas upbringing, where she sang in the Southern Baptist church (until she quit abruptly at twelve after an argument about abortion) and worshipped Mama Cass (“She was fat, and I was a fat kid”), Cyndi Lauper (“I literally thought she was my sister”), and Missy Elliott equally.
Along with guitarist Nathan Howdeshell, Beth eventually migrated West and started enchanting Out Magazine and Punk Planet subscribers alike with tunes that felt both violently political and intensely personal — previewing new tracks like “Standing in the Way of Control” a few months back at a Bottom of the Hill show, Ditto declared that everyone present was a “survivor” without clarifying whether we’d survived personal abuse or more general Bush-oriented maladies. Pick one, or maybe all. “I think that Nathan and I had such an intense childhood, and really intense teenage years, that we are serious survivors,” she says. “And I think that’s what keeps me and Nathan so connected in adulthood, because we’ve really came of age together. We’ve really been through some hard stuff together. Just our lives, just step by step.”
Of course, as Ditto steadily becomes a more prominent underground icon, the pressure grows to bear more of everyone’s load. “I was approached by this girl in San Francisco who was like, ‘I think you need to write more political songs,'” she recalls. “And I was like, ‘Fuck you. If me not being alive and writing songs and being the person that I am and existing in this world is not radical enough for you, then I can’t help you out. If you want more political songs, then your job as a person in this world is to write them. It’s not my job to write a political song for you. That’s your issue, not mine.'”
Whether you ultimately regard Control as a Dancing in the Bedroom or a Marching in the Streets affair, it’s fiery and pulverizing and joyous either way, a vehicle finally worthy of the voice that carries it. “I really feel a connection with other people, ’cause I feel like most punks I know are survivors of sorts,” Ditto concludes. “Maybe it’s not abuse or any of that stuff, but we fight something every day.”