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As lead singer of Gossip, Beth Ditto strutted and sang with the presence of a powerhouse. But as that band's career wound down last year — its last album, the commercially underperforming A Joyful Noise, came out in 2012 — it seemed mired in an identity crisis. Gossip's brash, soulfully combative rock 'n' roll had become softer and slicker, and while that left turn suited a band that thrived on surprises, it disappointed many fans who'd come to expect swaggering dance-punk with sharper teeth.
Five years after A Joyful Noise, Ditto returns with Fake Sugar, a solo debut that polishes her sound further. But it also benefits greatly from a shift in expectations: Freed of some of the hype surrounding Gossip's earlier records, it recasts Ditto as a versatile, pop-minded rock star who can still shake the rafters with her voice when the moment calls for it. Given the singer's gift for stage theatrics — she helped make Gossip's live shows legendary — it's easy to imagine these songs performed amid pyrotechnic displays worthy of Lady Gaga.
More importantly, Fake Sugar stays surprising throughout, with Ditto rarely bothering to tread the same ground twice: "Fire" churns and preens with Southern-rock self-assuredness before giving way to the sweetly shimmering girl-group choruses of "In And Out" and the ingratiatingly smooth softness of the title track. Elsewhere, "Oo La La" lands with stomping force, while "We Could Run" soars heavenward with a chorus that conjures memories of Enrique Iglesias' for-the-ages pop anthem "Escape."
It's become standard procedure to look askance at underground artists who take big swings at stardom. But if Beth Ditto becomes a full-blown mainstream star — as a queer plus-sized outspoken feminist with her own fashion line — it'll come at the expense of every norm she's spent her career working to tear down. Fake Sugar may be just the Trojan horse she needs.