Worth Talking About

Powerful and fiery, The Gossip leaves small towns and pop fluff in the dust.

When Beth Ditto, the diminutive singer for bluesy-punky band The Gossip, belts out a tune, visions of salvation and sin float in the atmosphere, like a teasing breeze on a sultry afternoon. Ditto's yearning yowl, in fact, calls to mind a far different woman, immortalized in the song "Josie" by Steely Dan almost a quarter of a century ago:

"She's the raw flame / the live wire / She prays like a Roman with her eyes on fire."

Ditto's wail is the wallop that propels this trio--from rural Arkansas by way of the Pacific Northwest--which also includes guitarist Brace Paine and drummer Kathy Mendonca. In each raggedy riff and pounding 4/4 beat can be found punk rock's sharp jabs to the ribs, the haunting moan of the blues and the testifying gospel influence of the band's collective upbringing in the Southern Baptist and Pentecostal churches.

It's an overtly alluring sound, sometimes assaulting so, in which Ditto channels a combination of Aretha Franklin, Mama Cass Elliott and The Slits. Many such comparisons can be made. So we'll defer to someone who actually has seen and heard the band on stage.

"She's like Tina Turner meets Janis Joplin," suggests Steven Eye, chargé d'affaires at Solar Culture gallery, where The Gossip will play Tuesday night.

Eye was happy to talk about The Gossip, seeing as the publicist at the band's record label didn't return The Weekly's telephone and e-mail requests for an interview with the band. What do we expect, really, from a record company named Kill Rock Stars?

"The Gossip has been one of our favorites down here for a while," notes Eye, of the band that's no stranger to Solar Culture. "It's just a great energy that they put out, the whole new bluesy thing that everybody's jumping all over. But they've been doing it for a while already."

And he has nothing but admiration for Ditto: "She's really tiny and really big at the same time," Eye says, no doubt referring both to Ditto's physical stature and commanding performance style.

In a recent interview in the online magazine Marrow, Ditto unashamedly addressed the fact that she doesn't possess a Britney body.

"There are all these women," Ditto says. "With perfect bodies, and 23-inch waists, and a perfect figure, and I'm nothing like all these people. I always noticed that I was proud of my body even when other people weren't. ... It sucks that you can't love your body because (of the messages) you're seeing in magazines, or on commercials. ... It's so discouraging. Every day, I remind myself that that's just bullshit, a bunch of companies trying to make money, and it's not true."

The Gossip's pummeling rave-ups and raw power have captured the group a growing legion of possessed fans and even a slot opening for the popular all-female punk band Sleater-Kinney.

Ditto and her cohorts have produced two CDs for Kill Rock Stars--the 2001 full-length album That's Not What I Heard and the amazing six-song EP, Arkansas Heat, which was released just last month. Their catalog starts with a four-song EP, The Gossip, released on K Records in 2000.

The Gossip's radical adaptation of the gospel standard "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" makes a clever ironic opening track on their debut album, and numbers such as "Hott Date," "Bring It On" and "Got Body If You Want It" are undeniably sexy paeans to lesbian desire. But the tone is only incidentally Sapphic; this is honest American lust, no question about it. But the band finally discovers and defines its own sound on the new EP, in the title track, the assaulting "Ain't It The Truth" and the extended feedback orgy of "(Take Back) The Revolution."

Here's where comparisons to Janis and Tina and Aretha are most apt. And the bass-less arrangements recall elements of the stripped-down hot-rods Flat Duo Jets, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and the White Stripes--and, if you can imagine it, with a little less polish on the fenders.

Although the members of The Gossip grew up in Searcy, Ark., they were outta there faster than you can say small-town cabin fever. Ditto headed up to college in Olympia, Wash., a hot-bed of independent rock, punk and pop. Her compatriots soon followed.

The song "Arkansas Heat" tells the tale of their escape: "2 hours south of Memphis ya'll / from a little town in Arkansas / where the people haven't changed at all / since 1965."

Imagine Tina Turner's "Nutbush City Limits" as performed by the defunct fiery blues-punk outfit Sister Double Happiness, only with a female singer. Now, intensify that about tenfold and you'll get the picture. Later in the same song, the lyric "I ain't a child, I ain't full grown" may remind radio listeners of the more superficial "I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman" by a certain Ms. Spears.

But that pop fluff only makes Ditto sound so much more authentic by comparison.