Ditto finds herself exploring the outer limits of her versatility.
The last time Gossip frontwoman Beth Ditto struck out on her own, with 2011’s self-titled EP, she was in more of a dancing mood. Buoyed by sleek, synth-driven instrumentals from Simian Mobile Disco’s James Ford and Jas Shaw, those four songs were pure sci-fi sex, dripping with neon and bred for the club. Her full-length solo debut, Fake Sugar, is a different beast altogether. Here, Ditto finds herself exploring the outer limits of her versatility, leveraging her powerful vocal ability and considerable charisma to pay homage to a variety of influences.
The title track finds her channeling Stevie Nicks, playing with a homespun throwback to middle American southern rock and pop far more naturally than the similar approach Lady Gaga struggled with on Joanne. Working with songwriter/producer Jennifer Decilveo, Ditto is able to shift between moods, sounds and attitudes while remaining distinctly herself. The furthest she veers from her expected persona, “We Could Run”, is also the closest she comes to careening into a safe, mainstream space. The soaring anthem, with its half-time chorus, splits the difference between Bruce Springsteen and whatever the fuck Pink has been doing for the last decade, but Ditto sells it with the emotional quake of her vocal performance. There’s a conviction about the way she sings that is rare in modern radio. She’s got Adele’s chops and pipes, but her belting works for all seasons. You’d be hard-pressed to find a genre Ditto couldn’t believably assay and this album proves it.
“Oo La La” is a ramshackle stomper with just enough glam to suggest T. Rex taking Goldfrapp out to karaoke at a biker bar. Album opener “Fire” smolders with aplomb, chugging along with the straightforward, lo-fi aesthetic Pop Levi played with so effectively on his late ‘00s solo records, but it transitions into the soulful “In and Out,” an R&B burner about the give and take of love. It’s thrilling to hear Ditto synthesize so many of her favorite sounds with such ease, but fans of her main band’s exploits may find the entire affair a little tame. It’s not to say that she’s playing it too safe, but there’s a real lack of bombast that wouldn’t be so glaring if this wasn’t Beth Fucking Ditto. Her restraint is fascinating in this context, but at times the record feels like a slow Sunday drive in a muscle car when you just want to press your foot on the pedal.
The best track for listeners who want to see Ditto really get loose is probably the aptly named “Go Baby Go.” Easily the highlight, this song, with its slinky bassline and Ditto’s megawatt presence, will satisfy anyone whose hips don’t swivel enough on the record’s slower churning cuts, reflecting the best of what’s made her such a name while benefiting from the subtle textures of this album’s atmospherics. The last time a riotous garage rock singer showed off her range like this it was Karen O on the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Show Your Bones, but something about how assured Fake Sugar feels suggests we haven’t seen anything yet.