Sizzletits."Beth Ditto, frontwoman for Gossip, had been described as "fleshy," "fabulous" and a "rock and roll heroine" before. But this one, coming from a fan-of-sorts at a recent Denver show, was new.
"Take the oldest blonde lady on "The Price is Right' and give her tons of coke, and that's her," Ditto laughs. "She kept saying I had great breasts and calling me "Sizzletits.' Have you ever heard that in your life?"
Gossip formed in the late 1990s, when Ditto, who grew up singing in Southern Baptist church choirs, met guitarist Brace Paine (Nathan Howdeshell) and drummer Kathy Mendonca. They developed a sound unique to the indie scene of the time, combining Ditto's big, bluesy wail and R&B grooves with a punk-rock "fuck you" aesthetic Aretha Franklin meets Le Tigre's Kathleen Hanna.
They soon moved from their home state of Arkansas to greener pastures in Olympia, Wash., where they scored a record deal with Kill Rock Stars.
For their latest, and, by far, best album, Standing in the Way of Control, Ditto and Paine found a soundmate in drummer Hannah Blilie (Shoplifting, Chromatics). She had jumped on a Gossip tour to fill in for Mendonca, who then was attending school full-time. The change strengthened what arguably was the band's one weakness: a similar beat in every song. Ditto and Paine asked Blilie to stay on.
"It was like two people pushing instead of three. Brace and I were growing, and Kathy wasn't. Hannah eats, sleeps and breathes drums," says Ditto.
Songs like "Fire with Fire" and the disco-infused title track showcase the group's booty-shaking appeal, while uncharacteristically subdued surprises lie in store with the mournful "Coal to Diamonds" and "Holy Water." The gorgeously spare "Dark Lines" finds Ditto tapping Dusty Springfield-like vocals, low-key and hushed, compared with her usual brassy howls.
Recorded by Guy Picciotto (Fugazi) and Ryan Hadlock (Blonde Redhead), the new album is a testament to the maturity of the trio, now based in Portland, Ore. But they haven't lost any of their bite, packing in as much attitude as possible.
Ditto attributes this to the band's trust in the producers, especially Picciotto, who's known for being a mentor on punk ethics. At the time they were recording, Gossip was being courted by a major label, and asked Picciotto for advice.
"He said, "It's about where you are in your life. Don't let people sway you because it's punk or not,'" she says. "And that's really true ... It's not about what the punk police are going to say about you."
Or what anyone says about Ditto herself. She wears the various labels ascribed to her proudly, co-opting even mean ones, like "fat" and "dyke."
"I'm definitely an advocate for fat-positivity," she says. "It's something that needs to be pushed, because I think women are forced into a look that disregards talent, and are defined by a waistline that they can't attain."
Being fat, says Ditto, doesn't mean you can't be fabulous. And she won't let weight-bashing triumph over success.
"It's been harder for us, than to be a mainstream band, but I would rather be a Nina Simone than be a Ciara. I'd rather be a Divine than be a Madonna."
-- Kara Luger
Standing in the Way of Control
Kill Rock Stars