POP/ROCK: Gossip, "A Joyful Noise" (Columbia)
Vocalist Beth Ditto is often slumming in the unremarkable music of Gossip's new CD. It's not that she's too good for the electro context of the songs; her powerful pipes are simply too good for mediocrity of any sort. But at least she has her time to shine, too.
The trio from Olympia, Wash., follows 2009's acclaimed "Music for Men" with an inconsistent and largely conventional electronic-steeped release front-loaded with its best cuts. Opening track "Melody Emergency," which is more theater than song, finds our heroine anxiously holding her own against grinding static. Then the album lifts off with the ensuing "Perfect World," a heavily hypnotic rhythm providing the foundation for Ditto as she pours out her heart in the high-stakes chorus. That's followed by the quirky compression and playful lyrics of "Get a Job," where Ditto sasses a spoiled roommate.
Track No. 4, "Move in the Right Direction," is a riveting dance anthem that is just a dubbed vocal away from sounding like the rebirth of Abba. Yet from there, Gossip sinks into inexplicable inertia, uneventful song after another all the way to the end with traces of spirit provided when Ditto soulfully rises above the mundane material.
CHUCK CAMPBELL, Scripps Howard News Service
POP/ROCK: Regina Spektor, "What We Saw From the Cheap Seats" (Sire)
"The piano is not firewood yet," Spektor declares not long into her new album, and indeed it's hard to imagine this New York songstress running out of better applications for her instrument anytime soon. On her fourth major-label studio set, Spektor uses the piano to anchor a succession of far-flung ditties, including the funky, suite-like "Small Town Moon," the fuzzily percussive "All the Rowboats" and the deeply affecting soul ballad "How." Producer Mike Elizondo knows how to help diversify an artist's sound without muddying the mix; he famously decluttered Fiona Apple's "Extraordinary Machine."
Beyond her playing, Spektor holds together the music on "Cheap Seats" with her singing, which even at its most intricately melodic (as in "Oh Marcello") retains an improvisatory feel. In "Don't Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)" -- not the Jacques Brel tune -- Spektor chews over the phrase "I love Paris in the rain" atop a bouncy quirk-pop groove, while "Patron Saint" finds her stretching "true love" to at least a dozen syllables. Those lyrical snippets tell you that Spektor, like so many songwriters, has romance on the brain. But, as with her unique arrangements, she rarely comes at the topic from the angle you'd expect.
MIKAEL WOOD, LOS ANGELES TIMES