It’d be nice to claim that I had an infallible eye for spotting a future superstar, but watching the ascent of the Gossip over the past two or three years, I’m reminded that there was a band I could’ve never have imagined becoming big. When I first saw them play in, what, 2002 maybe, I thought they were terrific. But they also seemed to be so tightly embedded in a post-riot grrl scene of fanzine elitists that, for all the strengths of Beth Ditto’s personality and pipes, they’d surely be more or less unintelligible to the mainstream.
More pointedly, Ditto appeared so militantly averse to reaching any kind of rapprochement with the mainstream. During that gig, she spent about ten minutes dissecting an NME live review of Missy Elliott, claiming the writer was critical of the show because of sexism and sizeism. In fact, he was critical of Elliott’s show because it was a shambles: I was there, and grievously disappointed as Elliott spent most of the gig arbitrating talent contests and causing fights by throwing her socks and sneakers into the crowd.
I wasn’t about to point this out to Ditto, however, as she proceeded to shred the copy of NME while the crowd worked themselves up into a frenzy. Along with a couple more NME writers, I shifted uncomfortably around the back of The Spitz and wished she’d get back to the music.
I think of that night more or less every time I open one of London’s free papers and see Ditto beaming from the front row of some catwalk show, or wandering in and out of paparazzi shooting galleries in the company of sundry A-listers whose knowledge of the riot grrl may well be, without being too presumptuous, a bit sketchy.
I think of it, too, whenever I play the new Gossip album, “Music For Men”, not least because it doesn’t sound entirely different from how they did that night: “8th Wonder” and “Spare Me From The Mold”, especially, are pretty close to the vivid, chattering soul-punk they were peddling so enthusiastically on the underground circuit at the turn of the decade (though “Spare Me” is close to “Rock Lobster”, too).
“Music For Men”, then, as you’ve probably picked up, has not been produced, as was once rumoured, by Timbaland (for the best, I think, given his recent track record: Chris Cornell!). Instead, Rick Rubin takes charge. Rubin’s usual trick of making everything exceedingly loud works well here, unusually, not least because he has the good sense of not completely revamping the Gossip’s rudimentary formula.
From the moment “Dimestore Diamond” prowls in, the bony minimalism of the band is recognised by Rubin as crucial to their appeal, giving Ditto’s heroic vocals all the space they need. It occasionally sounds as if Rubin has polished some of the rough edges off those tones, but not so much that it becomes a discomfiting listen.
More amazingly, perhaps, is that the Gossip have achieved something that even a good few of their fans must have doubted; that is, written an album of songs that should ensure they won’t solely be remembered for “Standing In The Way Of Control”. It’s frontloaded, for sure, with a brilliant opening sally of “Dimestore Diamond”, “Heavy Cross” (“Control” part two, crudely, as is “Men In Love”), “8th Wonder” and “Long Long Distance”.
“Love Long Distance” is probably the first track that’ll alarm the indie puritans, replacing Brace Paine’s guitar with some Italian House piano and synth washes, not unlike some of the remixes that circulated in the aftermath of the last album. Again, though, as “Love Long Distance” flows into the jittery electrofunk of “Pop Goes The World”, Rubin keeps everything fairly spare, airy and restrained, understanding that even at their most flamboyant and disco-friendly, The Gossip don’t suit a maximalist approach.
It’s a canny pop makeover – an “elevation”, as April calls it in her review of “Music For Men” in the forthcoming Uncut – which stands comparison with Peaches’ fantastic “Talk To Me”. There’s a surprising lack of contemporary R&B influence, save maybe the verse of “Vertical Rhythm” which has that “Knightrider” synth sound that was all over hip hop records (a Busta Rhymes hit, was it?) a few years ago, and the shuddering electro ballad, “Four Letter Word” (a hint of Aaliyah here, in a very different way to how she was referenced on The Dirty Projectors’ “Bitte Orca”) .
But the great trick “Music For Men” pulls off is that it manages to sound very shiny, modern and commercial without totally scurfing off the DIY vigour of old. Not bad.