THE GOSSIP with the Paybacks at Lee's Palace (529 Bloor West), Tuesday (July 8). $10. 416-532-1598. Rating: NNNNN
Nathan "Brace" Howdeshell, frenetic guitarist for the Gossip, is pissed, and who can blame him? When the explosive Arkansas-by-way-of-Olympia gospel-punk trio shimmied into the spotlight back in 1999 with their self-titled 7-inch, their raw, garagey fusion of riot grrrl energy and traditional soul sizzle set them apart from their peers.
Bodacious vocalist Beth Ditto's old-timey wail, conjuring sweltering sing-alongs in down-home Baptist churches, transformed the Gossip's stripped-down guitar-drum assault into something simultaneously timeless and totally novel.
But with the sudden influx of trad-friendly ensembles blues-rawkin' their way onto radio airwaves, Howdeshell and his bandmates (drummer Kathy Mendonca makes three) find themselves in the frustrating position of being pigeonholed in the same scenester category as folks like the Kills and the Black Keys.
It's a very fine line, says Howdeshell. Or perhaps a very fine White Stripe.
"It depresses me that people think we sound like the Black Keys," he exclaims over a staticky cellphone.
"They're just a bar-rock band. They're not punk at all. People used to compare us with Pussy Galore or Bikini Kill or Sleater-Kinney, and we felt way more of a connection to them - interesting, dangerous bands that had women in them and were loud and abrasive. Now it's just dudes playing blues riffs. That sucks! It's not cool or dangerous or punk.
"I don't mean to be talkin' shit, but I'm sick of people saying we sound like the White Stripes."
No doubt. Take the fact that John Goodmanson's (Sleater-Kinney, Nirvana's Bleach) gleefully DIY production gives the Gossip's newest disc, Movement (Kill Rock Stars) more grittily authentic soul than Meg White could drum up in 50 years of Rolling Stone hype. You can hear Ditto's impassioned yowl echo off the walls, and neat touches like gospel-style hand-clap percussion and deliberate mistakes maintain an appropriately dirty punk patina.
But beyond that, their live shows are out of this world. Ditto's been known to strip on more than one occasion, and the crew view dancing as a form of activism. Howdeshell claims the astonishing energy at a Gossip gig owes something to the spectacle of politically inflected art movements like Situationism and Dada.
"The early UK punk bands like Kleenex adapted the cut-and-paste and collage imagery from the Situationist and Dada movements. There used to be noise shows at Cabaret Voltaire where the artists would bang on pots and pans, and it was super-connected to punk. But it wasn't violent and it wasn't hardcore macho bullshit - it was pure and raw and interesting."
Intriguing that a gospel-tinged trio of three ex-Arkansans raised in church-going families have become crusaders for leftist punk ideals. Like local anti-sizeist activist dance troupe Pretty Porky and Pissed Off, the proudly queer, proudly fat Ditto makes each performance into a political statement.
Howdeshell agrees that incorporating a subversive agenda into traditionally inflected tunes is part of the Gossip's appeal.
"We make music for weirdos like us who don't feel right in mainstream society. We're totally like a church of weirdos who wear it on our sleeve. It's like a sermon for those kids, that they're cool and not total freaks, a travelling revival!"