Gossip could make excellent music in a number of genres, but they haven't done so here.
When Gossip (then with a “the” in its name) started on K Records at the end of the '90s and then Kill Rock Stars, it was a lo-fi garage act. People were quick to connect them to the Riot Grrrl scene. Beth Ditto's soul-influenced vocals coupled with the band's punk sound made for memorable music. With 2006's Standing in the Way of Control, the group expanded its sound, revealing the many directions it could take if it chose. With this album, the dance influences started to reveal themselves, and trio used just enough disco-punk to make genre-descriptors sound silly. Since then, Gossip has progressed in an increasingly dance-focused direction. It's reached a peak in that field with new album A Joyful Noise, but the band hasn't been as successful as with earlier efforts.
The musical progression has shown not only in the albums but in remix EPs and Ditto's self-titled EP with Simian Mobile Disco, which set her up as dance-pop singer. From there, Gossip's moved fully to the dancefloor. They've brought in Xenomania's Brian Higgins for the production work, a fitting choice to set them more in line with Kylie Minogue than Bikini Kill. Gossip has shown their flexibility and dance interests, and Ditto certainly has the voice to pull off a pop diva performance.
Unfortunately, the resulting album doesn't quite work out. There are a few duds here, with the instructive “Get a Job” leading the way, complete with awkward rapping moment. “Into the Wild” pushes too far into the album's 1980s influences. Rather than updating old sounds (Ditto's been listening extensively to Abba), cuts like “Into the Wild” are simply redundant.
A Joyful Noise does have its moments. Opener “Melody Emergency” has dirty electro groove that gives Ditto plenty of space to express herself. She sings, “So you're not a rock 'n' roller / And there's nothing wrong with that,” a line that proceeds a guitar part that woudn't be out of place on a Yeah Yeah Yeahs record. On tracks like this one, the group catches a sound that suits them well. “Move in the Right Direction” provides a bouncier track while Ditto displays her skill at singing with restraint, making the cut an effective club number. The almost tender “Casualties of War” is much more subdued, but it's a highlight for Ditto.
Too often the songs here are forgettable, but Ditto continues to sing impressively. Largely forgoing the gospel and soul roots (at times, she used to sing as if auditioning for Stax), she's now taking cues from artists like Madonna, but without turning the album into any sort of homage or genre exercise. She's in control of her powerful voice, and tracks like “Love in a Foreign Place” give her the chance to use a wide emotional range as well. Ditto's moved beyond simply having a good voice, developing her ability to be a singer.
Right now Gossip seems to have lost focus. It's not due to the shift in sound. The group could probably cut a strong electro album, and Ditto could make a memorable statement in a house or classic disco setting. They just haven't done so here. It may be that they just haven't pinned down the exact sound they want to get, and there's reason to be optimistic about their next album.