The Gossip, 'Music for Men' (Columbia)

Critical Mass
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by Jessica Suarez

What's that joke about gay couples wanting to get married? They deserve the chance to be as unhappy as straight people. On the Gossip's major-label debut -- 12 Rick Rubin–produced tracks spanning minimalist disco, post-punk, and garage -- the trio extends the gay-positive message of 2006's "Standing in the Way of Control," the single that broke them in Europe seven years after the band started. Yet frontwoman Beth Ditto remains caught somewhere between Donna Summer and Dolly Parton: she loves to love, but all those complications keep her down.

Ditto is obsessed with the word itself: "love" appears in three song titles, not including the dark, pulsing "Four-Letter Word" (which is about you know what). Rarely, as on centerpiece "Men in Love," does she actually celebrate it. She breaks up that track's kicker ("Men in love...with each other...hey!") with expectant pauses, as her phrasing mimics the song's jerky rhythm. On "For Keeps," Ditto sets up an us-versus-the-world argument, but the condition of the settlement is the persistently unfulfillable "need to be free." Ditto's huge voice can't do soft, so it shoots skyward on"Love Long Distance," and coupled with a mechanical piano and canned beat, the band starts to sound a bit catatonic. But the rest of Music for Men is a tightly wound disco-punk conjugation. In the end, that's the only love affair the band happily consummates.

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