It’s been three years since Gossip‘s last disc, Music For Men, the album that found the Olympia, Washington trio moving to a major label. Produced by Rick Rubin, that disc was Columbia Records’ attempt to push the band’s dance-pop out of the indie world and into the general American consciousness. Where once they had rough edges, Music For Men began the sanding process, and on new disc A Joyful Noise, we’re left with smooth dance-pop. Teaming up with British producer Brian Higgins (founder of production group Xenomania, writer/co-writer of songs with both Minogue Sisters, the Pet Shop Boys, and others), A Joyful Noise is Gossip’s stumbling step into the world of shiny, straightforward, satisfying pop. While that progression seems totally logical, too often the lyrics ring stale, and the disco-flecked instrumentals lack much punch.
Frontwoman Beth Ditto has always been the star of the show, her soulful, rich delivery accentuated by the sparse, simple backing. That’s definitely still the case here, her voice as powerful as ever on tracks like “Get A Job” (one of two Higgins co-writer credits). It’s just a shame that the things she’s saying with that voice on that song are so trite. The chorus of “you never know how it’s going to go end up tomorrow/you gotta try, try, try” is groan-inducing on its own, but followed by cliched empowerment lines and the spoken bridge of “I’d love to stay and party but I gotta go to work” (which gets Ke$ha’ed out into a pitch-shifting dip after a couple of repetitions), the whole thing is too silly to believe. Adding a note like “Who’s gonna hire you with your lack of experience?” might be more jokey than attempt at acknowledging the financial crisis, but it’s not funny enough to pull that irony off.
If the idea is that the vocals need to be mindless and vapid so that you can dance your brain out without worrying about them, then there’s nothing better on the disc than “Move In the Right Direction”. The stuttered, insistent synth and choppy guitar from Brace Paine demand you dance along, Hannah Blilie’s simple, cracking drums keeping everything together. The instrumental is pure dancefloor fun. That said, any song that spits out a line of cliches equal to “keeping my head up/looking forward/reminiscing will get you nowhere/never say never/starting over/it’s not perfect but it’s getting closer” essentially admits it’s not something to think very hard about. These lyrics are pointless even for a genre where lyrics take a backseat.
The songs on A Joyful Noise tend to unfurl aimlessly without a memorable hook or point of climax. “Get Lost” uses a synth piano setting featured primarily in early ’90s house music, the whole thing sounding like a cousin to Madonna’s “Vogue”, more cliches about dancing to the beat of a different drum serving as a lackluster chorus. While the funky horns, cowbell, and squelching synths on “Horns” are fun, nothing ever comes of it. There’s nothing to latch onto, no point at which the whole thing comes together. It meanders on for three and a half minutes, coming to a close without really saying anything.
The slower, emptier tracks that let Ditto stretch her voice out do more favors than cluttered ones that demand more words. Despite notes about “the quiet before the storm” on “Into the Wild”, the moments at which her lush delivery floats out over the sparse bass thumps and light disco instrumentation have a soft beauty. The noir-y, “us vs. the world” themes of lead single “Perfect World” revel in their easy power rather than trying to build up to some sort of mindless mantra.
The incredible bass lurch and Ditto’s hooted, wordless riff on the chorus of opening track “Melody Emergency” are smoky and groovy in a way that few tracks are, one of the few instances where the song manages to outweigh the cheese factor. No matter how cliche the song gets (the unnecessary ’80s synth fiddles, lines like “You gotta go a little crazy, release the animal”), that chugging guitar line, the slinky bass, those haunting “oohs” just sound too right to deny. In the end, though, the groans far outweigh the mindless fun. The pop is just too on the nose, too heavy-handed, no matter how unique a voice Ditto has.
Essential Tracks: “Melody Emergency”, “Perfect World”