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A Spoonful of Sugar

Though rooted in Southern rock, the former Gossip singer's solo debut offers up a hodgepodge of styles where her voice remains a show stealer

Beth Ditto / Fake Sugar

Beth Ditto is an icon -- at least in the queer feminist punk circle in which she'd been operating as Gossip's fearless frontwoman for the past 17 years. A self-described "fat feminist lesbian", Ditto is also known for challenging beauty and sexuality norms, fervently advocating for fat acceptance movement. Talking to NPR, the 36-year-old Arkansas-born singer has no qualms calling herself fat: "If someone can say that they are thin, I feel like I can say that I'm fat ... There's other words that people like to use, like curvy or thick -- and I'm just like, I'm not a road. I'm not a steak. I'm just -- I'm big. I'm big and I'm fat, and that's just what it is, and that's OK!"

After Gossip split last year, Ditto turned her focus to her plus-size clothing line and what would eventually become Fake Sugar, her debut solo album proper following her 2011's solo self-titled EP. Produced by Jennifer Decilveo (Boyz II Men, Andra Day, Rebecca Furguson), not only does it align itself with her Southern roots, it also draws inspiration from the works of husky-voiced Southern chanteuse Bobbie Gentry as well as Paul Simon's Graceland. The result, then, is less of a dancefloor persuasion and more of a honky-tonk barn-stomping session.

Lead single/opener Fire sets the tone with swaggering rock 'n' roll rhythms. "Hands too burnt/ Sitting on the side of the road/ Ain't gotta an honest feeling in my bones," she begins in her signature sassy Southern drawl. "Felt like a fever/ Came on like a stone/ But what I felt, it can't be helped no more." In and Out serves up a seriously addictive bassline alongside the lyrics about the ups and downs of a long-term relationship ("I, I do it for you/ You do it for me/ And we go in and out of love"). And with its handclaps and a couple of "ah woh wohs", this is easily one for the radio.

On the serene title track, she sings about getting "so sick and tired of feeling sick and tired" over a galloping bassline while Savoir Faire blends indie-rock guitars with disco beats. In fact, the springy guitars and bass provide the backbone to most of the upbeat songs on the album (Go Baby Go, Oh My God, Do You Want Me To). Elsewhere, the '70s arena-rock We Could Run splendidly highlights Ditto's powerhouse vocals while Oo La La comes the closest to the dance-punk-slash-riot grrrl material of her Gossip days. Then there're weepy power ballads that bring to mind Dolly Parton (Lover, Love in Real Life, Clouds (Song for John)).

Taken as a whole, Fake Sugar may come across as derivative to some. Dig through the Southern-rock posturing and this is an album whose influences stretch all over the place from punk and pop-dance to rock, disco and soul-punk. But despite the lack of one singular sonic focus, Ditto delivers some stellar moments solely on the strength of her gritty, dynamic voice.

THE PLAYLIST

Montonn & Hanna / Hungry Eyes

After dropping two singles back in 2015, Bangkok-based acoustic folk duo Montonn & Hanna (Montonn Jira and Hanna Bengtsson) return this year with their third, Hungry Eyes. Here, the pair doesn't stray too far from the sonic palette they first introduced us with -- a beguiling combination of Montonn's gentle, lilting acoustic guitar and Hanna's sweet, melancholy vocals. "I wanna feed your hungry eyes," she repeats during the chorus, her voice enveloped by the tender acoustic arrangement. At the time of writing, there's still no official word on their debut EP yet, but we're hoping it will be very soon.

TLC / American Gold

Beloved American R&B girl group TLC is no stranger to making social commentary whether it's on their breakout single Waterfalls or feminist anthem Unpretty. In a similar fashion, their latest cut, American Gold, finds Chilli and T-Boz touching upon the USA's dire state of affairs ("Pride starts wars/ Seems love has died/ Too soon ... when will we try?") while remaining hopeful and resilient in the face of adversity ("I'll give breath to save your life/ Bombs are falling from the sky/ I'll be bold enough to fight/ By your side").

Flight Facilities (feat. Emma Louise) / Arty Boy

The Sydney electro-pop duo are back with Arty Boy, their first new material since 2014's debut stuido album Down to Earth. Featuring Australian singer-songwriter Emma Louise, the song fits right into Flight Facilities' modus operandi of masterfully blending a sleek, sensual groove with soulful guest vocals. "And there you were drinking Coca-Cola shaking your polaroid picture/ Don't try to explain it, I think that we feel the same here," Louise sings in her breathy coo. "But all I wanna know is, what you think about me arty boy/ All I wanna know is, what you think about me arty boy."

Hercules & Love Affair (feat. Sharon Van Etten) / Omnion

Another collaboration worth checking out this week comes from DJ/producer Andy Butler's dance music project Hercules & Love Affair and Brooklyn's noir-folk singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten. Described as "a childlike dialogue with a higher entity voiced through the filter of a broken adult male," Omnion is a wonky offering that pitches Van Etten's whispery vocals against Butler's otherworldly electronica production (think Chromatics on acid). Hercules & Love Affair's upcoming fourth album, also titled Omnion, is due out in September, three years following 2014's The Feast of the Broken Heart.

Chad VanGaalen / Old Heads

Old Heads, the first taste of Chad VanGaalen's forthcoming sixth LP Light Information, sees the Canadian visual artist/singer/songwriter/producer serving up a piece of fuzzy garage jam that addresses the anxiety of raising children in the internet era. "Who is the operator keeping all my cells together," he asks, accompanied by shambolic guitars. "And no one cares about their old heads/ Because the new ones work just fine now, don't they? They have the same size mouth and eyes/ And I really don't mind." Really made you think, didn't it?

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