April 9th, 2008 | by JAY HORTON Music | Posted In: Columns, Album Reviews, Album Reviews

THE GOSSIP, Live In Liverpool (Columbia)

     
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[SOUL-PUNK] Somewhere's between NME anointing her Coolest Person of 2006 and a “What Would Beth Ditto Do?” advice column appearing in The Guardian, the Gossip's larger-than-life vocalist (and her band) conquered England. Award-show duets with Pulp's Jarvis Cocker, a headlining set at Glastonbury, the nude NME cover that launched a thousand women's studies theses…the sun never set on the Gossip empire, and I'm not sure why.

The Portland-based band's '06 album, Standing In The Way Of Control, ever-so-slightly tweaked Studio 54 blueprints for danceable agitprop too eccentric for wide success and too derivative to be taken seriously. Ditto's queer/weight activism should be applauded, but one worries that the singer's sudden celebrity rather ignores her day job. Either way, as the crowd from Live In Liverpool makes abundantly clear, little girls (of all sizes and genders) understand.

Live albums almost always seem like label-placating filler, and it's been two years since Control (itself more a mission statement than a vision). But Ditto's histrionics crave studio restraint—George Michael's “Careless Whisper” is covered as if by a faintly psychotic jogger singing to an iPod. Still, she has undeniable presence: A mélange of gutterpunk exertion and Live at the Apollo showmanship, Ditto wields heft the way Iggy rocked anorexic chic.

Weirdly, though, she's the least interesting thing about this release. Disco garage was a cute idea, but live, as Nile Rodgers-esque riffs and tumescent beats fluff unhinged wailings, it's something else altogether. Blues disco, maybe: a catwalk-ready soundscape overtaken by Ditto's ravings—if only she had something to say.

For all her punk trappings, Ditto clearly fancies herself a soul diva (gospel, really, once the Wiccan hymnal is in place). The band started in Arkansas, and, at Ditto's most feral, the Ozarks still seep through. But the guiding ethos remains bound to Olympia. “Standing In The Way Of Control,” the song that launched the band's ascension, endlessly repeats a dopey refrain till banality is almost transcended by ecstatic indignation.

But, alas, it's just the rapture of victimhood. One can't imagine the Gossip's conceit succeeding without Ditto's blinkered hysteria, but vein-popping frenzy shan't bless bumper-sticker rhetoric with emotive charge. With soul, blues, and disco above all, restraint is important: Every syllable need not redline, and perspective is to be prized. Lie back and think of England.

HEAR IT: Live In Liverpool comes out Tuesday, April 15.
 
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