Hail, Hail Britannia

FORGET THE MUSICAL cage match between Blur and Oasis. At the moment, I'm rooting for Echobelly-- possibly the only band in the current British "new wave of New Wave" with anything new to say.

Their debut Everyone's Got One might've been my top pick of 1994 if I'd known about it. But the record never got much play stateside--though the glass-shattering single "Insomniac" earned a few spins on Rev-105. Sony is, however, carrying the ball for their latest, On. But to appreciate their fun-loving follow-up, it helps to grasp the earnest accomplishment of Everyone.

To appreciate that, one must begin with fireball vocalist/lyricist Sonya Aurora Madan, perhaps the first English rock star of Indian descent, give or take ex-Monsoon vocalist Sheila Chandra. The Delhi-born Madan moved to suburban London at age three. Though the family was relatively Westernized, she remained very much an outsider to English life, a fact that fuels both her critical outsider's gaze and her passionate yearning for social inclusion. Thanks to Scandinavian riff-maker (and former porn publisher) Glenn Johannson and outspoken black lesbian guitarist Debbie Smith (ex-Curve), the band exudes multi-cultural unity and progressive politics without much effort.

But Madan is reportedly bored with the critics' focus on the Asian angle, and more flattered by her standing as a respected voice in new rock. Madan and Smith were both asked to add their biographies to the 1994 compilation Grrrls: Viva Rock Divas by Brit writer Amy Raphael (St. Martin's Press). Madan's Grrrls chapter tells of a sheltered and unmusical youth. Thus her late entry into rock was no art-school obligation, but an avenue for intelligent dissent and self-determination. Perhaps by coming of age outside the punk-rock tradition, Madan combines a refreshingly hopeful vision with old-fashioned songwriting values of clarity and warmth, all delivered on melodies that stretch like stairways to heaven.

Furthermore, Everyone's Got One practically bursts with issue-oriented immediacy. Madan, though widely regarded as fashion-model material, keeps the tease game to a minimum. Rather, "Father Ruler King Computer" is a Germaine Greer lift that ditches the marriage myth for a message of independence. Beyond that anthem, topics tackle racism, Indian patriarchy, abortion, drugs, and the simple charms of suicide. Such frankness has earned them the title "preachy," but their explosive tunes gave them British hits, with a mix of bold truths and uplifting pop essence unheard of since The Smiths, to whom they've often been compared. Secure in her own strength, Madan accepts the compliment.

But the corresponding "bigmouth" backlash Madan suffered was less welcome. With On, Madan shrugs off the world's weight to create a lighter and less confrontational collection. She kicks things off with tongue in cheek and the car in gear for an escape down the 2-4-6-8 Motorway called "Car Fiction," while "King of the Kerb" celebrates SoHo street hustlers. The album peaks lyrically at the mid-point with "Pantyhoses and Roses." In lesser hands it would be a snide put-down of the conservative MP found dead of autoerotic asphyxiation; instead, Madan sees a chance to make a sympathetic plea against sexual repression. As always, she resists leading the sexual revolution by flagrant example, choosing instead to reason it out for the common good. "It could change/It will never" she repeats, her voice soaring and falling on each half-line, echoing the hopes and disappointments in the topic itself. The power-balladry of "Hot in a Cold Country" reads like a shout-out to her non-white sisters in foggy London. "In the Year" salutes a certain punk idealist trying to hold tight during the nation's swing to the right. From top to bottom, On lives up to its name.

When PJ Harvey failed to impress me at Somerset, a rival writer wondered which women rockers do I like? I'm not sure it's strictly a she thing, but frankly, women playing anti-social absurdists seems like small progress. PJ Harvey may want to bring you her love on MTV, but apparently she won't give you the time of day in Loring Park. Liz Phair will leave you in a year, and Courtney Love just wants your money. All I want is a pop-rock perfectionist who could run for president. Joe Strummer alive in '95, a more lucid Michael Stipe, Kate Bush without the cocoon. Someone to believe, and believe in. Happy days are here again.

Echobelly warms up for Electrafixion, featuring ex-Echo and the Bunnymen Ian McCulloch and Will Sergeant. The Dandy Warhols open. $12/$14. 7 p.m. Fine Line Music Cafe; 338-8100.

THE POWER OF THE PRESS: Last week's column subject, Chicago street artist and rap-rocker Wesley Willis, has just been signed to American Records. So Rick Rubin gains Wesley Willis, but loses The Jayhawks

But as one era of Minneapolis major-label bands ends, another begins: Polara is reportedly committed to Interscope Records; Flipp has signed to Hollywood. Balloon Guy's Warner Bros. album is on schedule for February, Tina and the B-Side Movement's Elektra Records premiere is set for March; Semisonic's first album for MCA should also be out early next year. Jamecia Bennett of Sounds of Blackness releases her Mercury debut in February.

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