It’s been half a decade since last we heard anything from Beth Ditto, former frontwoman and firebrand spearheading garage dance punk favorites the Gossip. Much has changed in the intervening years, but Ditto’s voice has remained as strong and unapologetic a presence as ever. For her first full-length release under her own name—2011 saw the release of a well-received self-titled EP—Ditto largely jettisons the fiery punk elements of her previous group in favor of a smoother, more well-produced blend of dance music, soulful vocals and a slight return to her Southern roots.
Released on Capitol/Virgin, Fake Sugar is every bit a major label effort designed to make Ditto a star in the mold of Robyn, Adele or even Dusty Springfield. Indeed, it is her voice that sells each and every track here. Ranging from a cooing burr to a full-throated, soulful belt, hers is a voice of a versatility sorely lacking in contemporary pop music. Not only this, but she manages to remain stylistically interesting throughout the whole of the album’s 12 tracks, moving seamlessly from straight dance pop to a rawer, more soulful brand of R&B-indebted punk.
The title track builds from a skittering electronic drum beat to a gorgeously delivered vocal performance as good or better than anything Adele has done lately. Its sing-song hook and undulating verse melody would, in a perfect world, make both “Fake Sugar” and the album from which it comes smash hits. “We Could Run” is pure Robyn-inspired dance pop, Ditto’s voice exploding over the chorus and stretching “run” to its breaking point without ever once faltering. It’s an impressive showcase for her unquestionable, effortless vocal prowess and one aimed (rightly so) at the singles charts.
But then right after that, she’s back to her snarling punk roots on “Ooh La La”. “I’m all over the place,” she shrieks, her bluesy wail wandering gloriously all over the track. Instead of offering a variety of styles in an attempt to see what sticks, Ditto’s approach here has a unifying element that begins in her voice and ends in her unapologetic confidence and general badassery in everything she attempts. It’s an approach that makes Fake Sugar and album in the traditional sense rather than a loose collection of potential singles augmented by superfluous filler.
With a rich rawness that cuts the smoother elements of the album’s production like a serrated knife, Ditto’s voice is as swaggering an instrument as any in pop music, past or present. On “Go Baby Go” she shrieks and shouts with a demonstrative command of her vocal presence that puts her head and shoulders above her peers (not that she necessarily has any, as evidenced throughout Fake Sugar’s runtime). There’s an underlying attitude of “don’t fuck with me,” from the cover on down, that makes the whole of the album so empowering.
Similarly, “Oh My God” carries with it a rock and roll cool that goes back to the heyday of the girl groups with a clear line through the heart of punk and into modern dance music. It’s a magnificent encapsulation of more than half a century of pop music in under five minutes. “Love in Real Life” is the empowering power ballad that Adele only wishes she could’ve written, its chorus an explosion of profound emotion delivered in Ditto’s inimitably soulful, raspy croon. Indeed, there’s nothing fake about Ditto anywhere on the album, making Fake Sugar an overwhelmingly welcome return from one of pop music’s greatest vocal talents.