The Gossip and the BellRays play body music. Fat bodies, skinny bodies, short bodies, tall bodies, black bodies, white bodies, yellow bodies, purple bodies, gay bodies, straight bodies—if you can’t get down to this, then you ain’t got a body. (Go think about the new Radiohead record instead. There will be a quiz Thursday at 3:15.)
So, who got the body that rocks the party? Or is it the party that rocks the body? Doesn’t matter, Beth Ditto (of the Gossip) and Lisa Kekaula (of the BellRays) got ’em both. These ladies don’t just sing with their voices, they put their arms and legs and stomachs and asses into it, too. And they expect you to give it up as well—both routinely invade the crowd during their shows, taunting and berating those hipster mofos who just stand there and act like they’re too cool. “We came all the way up here for you people,” the Los Angeles-based Kekaula said, menacing a bunch of wallflowers last month at Maxwell’s. “The least you could do is move closer!”
On the inner sleeve of the Gossip’s debut, Thats Not What I Heard, there are two messages: “No thanks to the squares who don’t dance! Yr boring . . . ” and “Shake dat fat ass, baby!” Even more than lovably nerdy guitarist Nathan Howdeshell’s slick punkabilly riffs and shy, skinny Kathy Mendoncha’s simple garage-rock drumming, it’s Ditto’s smart mouth that shakes your body line. A punk shout hidden inside a Southern drawl, there’s something immediately familiar yet absolutely unique about it.
Thats Not What I Heard isn’t particularly earth-shattering (the songs all pretty much sound the same), but it’s got an undeniable spark, one that can only be generated by three crazy kids with nothing to lose. Bratty, demanding, and horny as fuck, Ditto is a woman who knows what she wants and knows how to get it, and she wants it now. When she sings, “Honey, won’t you say my name,” in “Got Body If You Want It” (which might as well be the title of the album, and this review), it’s less Destiny’s Child than the redheaded flute player in American Pie. “Say it loud! Say it clear! Mama’s home, Mama’s here!” the chorus goes.
And what a mama she is. Ditto throws her ample weight around like an erotic prizefighter, often performing wearing a T-shirt that says “SEXY,” or only a black bra. Her brazen self-confidence is gloriously liberating; it’s so rare to hear a white woman with an unconventionally attractive body type declare herself hot shit, and piss off if you don’t believe it. That explosive combination of Fuck You and Fuck Me is what makes punk rock worth listening to in the first place, and the Gossip are just about the punkest band out there. Except the BellRays, of course.
When asked in a recent interview which person she’d most like to see naked, Beth Ditto answered, “Tina Turner,” but she probably hadn’t gotten a glimpse of Lisa Kekaula yet. At Maxwell’s, Kekaula’s generous curves were poured into a tight black tank top and an even tighter black skirt slit up to high heaven. Her hair flowed out in a ferocious Afro that would make a mohawk wilt in fright, and she wore a pair of stilettos so tall only she and Tina know the secrets of walking in them. In other words, she looked like she could kick your ass and make you like it, which is exactly what the BellRays proceeded to do. As the band—guitarist (and Mr. Kekaula) Bob Vennum, bassist Jeff Porterfield, and drummer Mike Sessa—banged out one blistering “maximum rock and soul” (the bass drumhead tells no lies) number after another, Kekaula shimmied, shook, made heavy metal devil hand signs (unironically!), and couldn’t stay out of the crowd. “Testify!” she yelled, stalking the Hoboken club, “New Jersey needs a preacher!”
Unfortunately, the BellRays’ second and latest album, Grand Fury, doesn’t quite capture the energy of the live show, but maybe that’s asking too much. You need bodies to make these songs come alive: sweaty, passionate bodies in the flesh and in your face. But you also need Lisa Kekaula (who also belts for the retro-r&b Now Time Delegation) right there in your living room telling you that she ain’t fuckin’ around. That’s one of the album’s problems: It’s hard to take Grand Fury seriously, what with its cover graphic of a purple hand, middle finger extended, going up in flames, and the silly between-song sound snippets and in-jokes. Does this band really want to shake things up, or like the Gossip, do they just wanna have fun? And (here’s another problem), what are they so angry about anyway? “Warhead” begins “My daddy was a Nazi and my mama was a Jew/I’m so fucked up I don’t know what to do/My great-granddaddy was an Anglophile/And I’m just a nigger not a juvenile”—pretty heavy stuff. The similarly themed “Zero P.M.” declares, “The world is a ghetto/You are a ghetto/And the ghetto must burn from within.” So are they trying to break down racial barriers, or just shock? “Stupid Fuckin People” rails against capitalism, “Screwdriver” against lazy, annoying jerks, but the rest of Grand Fury seems just generally pissed off. The BellRays have often been compared to the MC5 (if they were fronted by, you guessed it, Tina Turner), and rightly so, from a musical standpoint. But the MC5 had a definite political agenda, didn’t they? (Sort of?)
Maybe the BellRays’ goal is to wreak havoc on punk rock as we know it—to give those silly scenesters a much needed boot in the groin. Because, VH1’s recent pseudo-retrospective to the contrary, punk shouldn’t just be about tattooed white boys yelling about not getting laid or overthrowing the government or hating school or whatever over the same three chords. It’s also about fat chicks and black chicks getting their bodies up there and blowing those boys away.