GO BETH! If the White Stripes can do it, why not the Gossip?
White rockers generally come by the blues one of two ways. They can spend hours upon hours living inside the grooves of Exile on Main Street (which can lead to all kinds of nasty habits, including Led Zeppelin, Muddy Waters, and even early Aerosmith). Or, like the raucous guitar/drums duo Black Keys, they can be blessed/cursed with coming of age in a city like Akron (long known as “Rubber City,” America’s tire capital). The weather may be nicer in Vero Beach, but the cultural climate drove singer/guitarist Alison “VV” Mosshart to join the punk band Discount before she hooked up with British drummer Jamie “Hotel” Hince as the Kills, yet another bassless duo with a taste for blues — albeit one that sounds as if it had been fostered in a basement with a needle and spoon, a handful of Velvet Underground albums, and a dose of Royal Trux attitude. At least the Gossip — a hard-rocking trio of guitar, drums, and vocals — had the advantage of growing up in the vicinity of blues country (Searcy, Alabama); that could account for singer Beth Ditto’s big-voiced, gospel-inflected delivery. It’s hard to imagine an outsized, outspoken, out lesbian like Ditto fitting in all that well in the small-town South, so no surprise that the Gossip escaped to Olympia, Washington, to launch their career for real on K Records in 1999.
Whatever its source, the blues has been instrumental in reintroducing sex and sensuality to rock, which seemed all but nunnery-bound in the hands of bands like Pavement for much of the ’90s. Ditto in particular has been forthright about getting the asses of Gossip fans moving, often leading the way, shaking her big, lingerie-clad body as her bandmates — drummer Hannah Billie and guitarist Brace “Nathan” Paine — deliver garage-blooze basics of muscular backbeats, sinewy riffs, jeans and T-shirts. The Gossip haven’t yet managed to capture in the studio the energy they generate on stage — at least not in its full, bursting-at-the-seams glory. So they’ve started their relationship with Columbia by releasing a live album/DVD recorded in the UK, where they tend to draw larger crowds, at Liverpool’s Carling Academy.
The audio disc kicks off with Ditto working herself into a frenzied scream against pounding drums and a nearly dissonant guitar line. But the song — “Eyes Open” — quickly coalesces around a thumping beat and a chugging riff as Ditto lets loose with some Big Mama Thornton belting that draws the line “I keep my eyes open” out into 14 or 15 syllables. Two minutes later, it’s over as quickly as it began. Ditto lovingly dedicates the next tune, “Yr Mangled Heart,” to “all the faggots.” Once again, that big voice takes over, to the point that you barely notice the quirky guitar line and syncopated beat that bolster the tune.
On the DVD, Ditto’s presence is even more dominating. For starters, she’s transformed herself from a punk-rock club rat into a silver-wigged glamor goddess decked out in a leopard-skin dress with a big silver belt and glittery lamé flats. She preaches a good game, opening the screaming blues punk of “Firesign” with posi reassurances: “No matter where you are . . . no one can fuck with you . . . so you have to be good to yourself . . . if you don’t care, no one can hurt you.” And she and the band pull off a fairly straight (if revved-up) cover of Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody?”, as if to suggest they’re just as ready for major-label distribution as the R&B star.
That may be overstating things. Then again, if the White Stripes can do it, why not the Gossip? But they aren’t the only band the White Stripes have carved out a mainstream niche for: the Black Keys have spent most of their six years as a kind of trad-blues foil to the more adventurous Stripes. Their roots were so firmly planted in the Mississippi hill-country sound of the late Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside that the Keys originally scored a deal with the Oxford-based Fat Possum label. Two years ago, however, they hooked up with Nonesuch, the imprint Warner Bros. seems to have set aside not just for jazz and classical but for graduating indie artists like Wilco and Stephin Merritt. The Keys’ fifth album, Attack & Release, debuted at #14 in the Billboard 200 albums chart when it came out on April 2.