Gossip: Undead in NYC

[12 November 2003]

By Rob Horning

After the first song on this brief live album, singer Beth Ditto announces, “For the record we’re not garage rock, we’re punk rock.” While she may want to let her publicists know this, since they don’t seem to recognize a difference in the press materials, the real question is why she sees a distinction and why in the world does she care about it. Such genre tags are reviewers’ inventions, often applied lazily to save themselves and their readers the trouble of having to think too specifically about the band in question. Why argue about where you should fit in to accepted rock-critic nomenclature? Shouldn’t the goal be to force writers to define other bands in terms of you? Is that all the control she feels she has, to ask to be oversimplified in one way rather than another? If there were a trace of irony in her voice when she makes the remark, it could be seen as an expression of the frustration bands must feel in the face of being commodified by the media.

Instead it appears that Gossip eagerly seek that commodification and want it on their own terms. And that Ditto tosses the line out at a show suggests she means it as a sop for her audience, as if they, too, would be proud to be recognized as true punks by being there rather than lowly, Johnny-come-lately garage fans. But it only shows how the reification of bands into fixed labels also extends to audiences, who, in the minds of hopeful promoters and record company personnel, are fixed by genre affiliation into a reliable market share.

Hence Dim Mak claims to be the “avant-punk-blues” label, hoping there’s a predictable bunch of people out there who identify themselves as avant-punk-blues fans. The fact that we can even guess what the hell “avant-punk-blues” is supposed to mean (music that sounds like the Kills, I think), is a testimony not to the accuracy of the term, but to the effectiveness of the press in disseminating it and attaching it to a once living, evolving style. But the grimmest implication is that the audience feels a sense of community only through being consumers of the same kind of pop music, that the target audience has replaced the community as the meaningful unit of organization in our culture, and no one, not even would-be subversive artists like Ditto, who denounces sexism and “fascism”, can find anything wrong with this.

The logic behind this live album must be that rawness demonstrates authenticity, otherwise the muffled, poorly mixed sound and haphazard between-song edits (cuts are made in the middle of speeches, on-stage tuning sessions are inexplicably left in, mistaken cues go unfixed) would have to be chalked up to laziness. The album sounds like a badly recorded bootleg (how bad? I’ve heard Johnny Thunders bootlegs that sound better), like a show captured on a minidisc player someone in the audience had in their pocket. The crowd noise drowns out the playing in parts, and there’s no balance in the mix: the bass buries the vocals, the guitar sounds distant, and the drums fade in and out, probably depending on how hard they were played (It doesn’t help that drummer Kathy Mendonca favors a primitive rockabilly style with lots of clicks and rim shots; you can barely pick these up).

The album is apparently designed to be an unaltered document, a testimony to the band’s energy and the crowd’s enthusiasm at a typical one of their shows. But the palpable energy that was in that room does little to animate their music when you’re listening to it in your car—there’s no evidence that the interaction between band and audience carefully preserved here did anything to enhance any of these songs, but the bad sound quality retained does a lot to diminish them. They already sound too much alike—a bluesy two or three note riff ground out relentlessly over a shuffle beat with Ditto’s growling honky-skronk filling in the gaps—but the bad sound makes them totally indistinguishable.

The primitive aesthetic in their music isn’t really compatible with primitive techniques of recording willfully employed here; after all, they could have got a decent sounding mix off the sound board if they wanted one, and then you might have been able to hear the nuances you hope exist in what their doing. Instead they want to pretend to have been caught on tape spontaneously, like the way old blues masters were recorded on the fly by musicologists. It suggests the band has made a fetish out of being primitive, expecting the sheer fact of it to replace the need for writing songs and shaping lyrics. In a variation on the indie low-fi aesthetic, they want to use bad sound to convey an attitude, and they want this attitude to impress us at least as much as their music.

This is perhaps the legacy the Gossip identify in the Stooges, who they cover to close this set (“I Wanna Be Your Dog,” not the most imaginative choice—I’ll take Sonic Youth or Joan Jett or that band who practiced in the basement next door to where I lived in college’s version over this one). While the Stooges certainly projected attitude, it seemed more a by-product of the menacing ferocity with which they played, from how lost they seemed in their own chaos. You would never think to wonder whether or not they are sincere. But Gossip, with all their sassy, sweaty posturing, inevitably prompt you to ask yourself that question. Of course, such questions of sincerity and authenticity are beside the point if they are trumped by entertainment value (American life teaches us nothing if not that). But since this album begs to be treasured for its authenticity, it thus seems designed to address these questions, stifle those suspicions, but in the end, it only provokes them more. Gossip should let us be entertained by what they get away with rather than try to make us believe they’re not getting away with anything.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/gossip-undead/