Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Go Big or Go Home: Fake Sugar by Beth Ditto

Beth Ditto performing at the Echo Music Awards in Berlin, Germany, in April, 2017. (Photo: Tobias Schwarz)

When the British vocalist Adele first graced the airwaves with her beautifully powerful voice, few music critics thought the strength of her voice and the openly personal nature of her songs could be matched. To some music fans Adele set a new standard of excellence that couldn’t be met by anybody of her caliber -- until now.

Beth Ditto's debut record Fake Sugar (Virgin) is a powerful pop/rock record that taps all the same emotional notes as Adele, without the sentimentality. Even though the album was released June 16 without much fanfare it is one of the strongest debut albums I’ve ever heard. It has a balance of intensity and emotional maturity with some mighty fine musical hooks to boot. Produced by Jenn Decilveo, Fake Sugar is virtually faultless in its execution. The mix is a marvelous collection of thumping downbeats and disco-infused pop numbers all supported by Ditto’s tough, honest and relentless attitude towards love, identity and society. And underneath all that angst she expresses is an earthy honesty that is more Patti Smith than Katy Perry. While I appreciate the performance art of Lady Gaga, who has an equally strong voice, I’m put off by her overproduced music and highly commercial sound. Her songs don’t have the depth of Beth Ditto. Fake Sugar is accessible pop, but it’s not trying to reach a musical compromise.

Beth Ditto, whose real name is Mary Beth Patterson, is from Judsonia, a small town northeast of Searcy, Arkansas, located right in the middle of the state. Searcy’s motto is "Pride, Progress, Potential," and I can't think of a better motto for Ditto, who told CNN in 2006, “I’m a fat, feminist lesbian from Arkansas.” As a southerner, Ditto grew up singing in a church choir on Sundays and listened to soul and R&B the rest of the week. When she relocated to Olympia, Washington, a much more accepting place to live, Ditto wasn’t about to shy away from her physicality. In fact, she embraced it in her first musical act, Gossip, a three-piece garage rock band that once opened for The White Stripes. That band released three studio albums before being picked up by Columbia Records in 2009 for two more. Gossip’s albums didn’t really hit in the United States, but they did in Europe, where the band’s music found open-minded fan support for Gossip’s edgy sound. In concert, Ditto was a powerful front person: a punk with size and presence.

By 2010 the band was finally recognized and nominated for a GLAAD award for Outstanding Music Artist for their album, Music For Men (Columbia). (Lady Gaga received the award for The Fame Monster.) As the publicity machine began to bring Ditto and her band into the mainstream, she decided to take on the world by baring herself, literally, on the cover of NME in 2007. Two years later she also graced the cover of the French version of Rolling Stone and the first issue of LOVE Magazine. Ditto was embracing her sexual orientation and her body at the same time, redefining the expression “go big or go home.” That year she also started her own line of plus-size clothing, followed in 2012 with a line of cosmetics for MAC. It was the same year she released a memoir called From Coal to Diamonds (Spiegel & Grau), telling her story about growing up in the conservative town of Judsonia.

All of her commercial activity may have taken time away from Ditto's music, but she didn’t stop writing. Fake Sugar is a selection of 12 songs, composed among many others over the last two years. On this record, her co-writer is Jenn Decilveo, whose claim to fame is the highly successful R&B album Cheers To The Fall by Andra Day, which got critical acclaim in 2015. For Fake Sugar, Decilveo and Ditto have fashioned a pop record with plenty of hooks and accessible rhythms. The music would fit any contemporary pop radio format, but should also find a home in dance clubs around the world.

Fake Sugar is an album with attitude whose highlights include the bright title track, the earthy “Fire,” the cheeky “Savoir Faire” and the irresistibly tender ballad, “Love in Real Life.”

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, and musician. John is also the author of Frank Zappa FAQ: All That’s Left To Know About The Father of Invention (Backbeat Books)

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