The Rubber Band
The funny thing about that "Y'all gon' make me lose my cool" line from DMX's "Party Up" is that the man has no perceptible cool to lose. And, face it, guys, neither do we. "Cool," both as a mindset and as a classic masculine ideal, is as finished for men as virginal innocence is for women--not because we're more "sensitive," but because it just takes more to get noticed these days. Better to be funny. Or aggressive. Or even naked, covered in blood.
Meanwhile, women in pop culture have never been cooler, processing decades of attitudinal nuance to give us, at one extreme, Lil' Kim's sex-kitten clawing ("If I were you, I would hate me too") and, at the other, Catherine Keener's Barbara Stanwyck-on-steroids turn in Being John Malkovich. If nothing else, "alternative" culture gave such toughs a rock 'n' roll window that Madonna would have frenched Joseph Lieberman for--the chance to become an instant star for both sexes without playing boy-toy games.
Elastica frontwoman Justine Frischmann was only one of many to shimmy through this opening in the mid-Nineties, when her Sandra Bernhard scowl was briefly synonymous with "women and guitars." At first, the Londoner seemed utterly unremarkable: a pale imitator of punk's second wave who seemingly hadn't heard one note of riot grrrl's musical or ideological challenge. (File under Veruca Salt.) Yet damned if "Connection" didn't emerge as the last great single of the fragmenting alt-rock consensus, the white "This Is How We Do It" of 1995. Like Montell Jordan jacking Slick Rick, the party hit was an assured work of plagiarism--it borrowed that "dun, dun-dun, dun, dun" riff from Wire's "Three Girl Rhumba"--and even most of those who recognized it got a lift from that lift.
From my perch on First Avenue's mezzanine, Frischmann's eat-shit snarl sounded like pure club sex. Men heard their doom--and liked it. Women liked it too. Where Liz Phair and the other Liliths fizzled on the floor, Elastica (and the CD Elastica) crossed over.
And so, having handily beaten her then-boyfriend, Blur singer Damon Albarn, to the Britpop finish line of American riches, Frischmann promptly forfeited. She withdrew from iconhood as her band and her relationship disintegrated. Most of us didn't give her a second thought--at least I didn't, until I walked into a record shop a couple of months ago to hear the clerk blasting an import copy of The Menace (Atlantic) by a reconfigured Elastica. Within a few songs, the album's glorious racket of cheesy organs and blown-out guitar amps made the debut sound merely like a neat trick--female-powered postpunk rendered catchy and glamorous and ephemeral. (Emotionally, cool rarely amounts to much). Here was something new in alt-pop: a punk comeback.
In fact, The Menace (which will be released stateside next week) feels like something more: a full rebuke of "alternative," like Courtney Love's recent open hate letter to the major-label system, or Rancid's new "hardcore" record (see Music Notes, right). Snarl intact and sonics scuffed, Elastica have made a "get-your-head-back-together record" (as Frischmann describes it in Spin) that scours the space between your temples as if to scream, "Forget the last eight years! Forget Lollapalooza! I'm not your goddamn Alternative Classic!" Gone is the retro-new-wave sheen of Elastica; in its place we get a garage band doing Stereolab, desperately recycling every postpunk guitar genre you can name--including riot grrrl, this time--to make...more trash! Elastica even recruited the Fall's legendary lead-grouser Mark E. Smith to play bingo master on the tellingly titled "How He Wrote Elastica Man." (His female collaborators spell out E-L-A-S-T-I-C-A like indie-rock cheerleaders.) It's all part of a reverse Pixies maneuver: Start big and clean; then get small and dirty. (You'll never come wack on an old-school track.)
Thing is, Elastica's new, more playful cool isn't any more "art" than the über-pose of "Connection." The Menace mostly searches in vain for songs in its glommed-together hooks, ending with a pointlessly faithful cover of Trio's Volkswagen-ad hit "Da Da Da." True, Frischmann has sated herself on those punk bullies the Stranglers and moved on to biting Aphex Twin (dig the groovy synthesizer meditations). Aided considerably by longtime producer Marc Waterman, the band never fails to drop artful touches into its half-written tunes--love that submarine ping in "Human," or the throbbing synth-bass monster under the acoustic guitars of "The Way I Like It." (On the latter, Frischmann floats absently through lines like, "Had a lover who was menacing/But the wind blew him away"; this is breezy revenge rock for women who are over their foe.)
But Frischmann still can't quite step out on her own limb. She doesn't have the experimental chutzpah to try anything as unique or daring as even Jesus and Mary Chain's early feedback-buried noise-pop. When she screams, she preens, her star chill intact. And her band steers clear of the anti-pop guitar-and-poetry mashing of such truer Wire inheritors as Fugazi or Lifter Puller. Such creative timidity leaves Elastica to their basic instincts, and their best "Toss off!" songs feel like toss-offs. On "Love Like Ours," Sharon Mew's synthesizers wheeze into noisy farmer-blows, while guitarist Paul Jones turns rockabilly riffs into punk sludge, winding into a sadistic stomp that could be a great practice jam. "Getting better on your knees," Frischmann sneers before her two minutes are up. "A love like ours will never die/A love like ours will never die-eeh-eye." No bridge needed there.
Maybe The Menace sounds bracing next to better albums because these tough female harmonies are as pop-sure as they are cocksure, so high on their own pose that the results feel both obvious and effective. Hell, we need the obvious and effective in rock 'n' roll. We also need guilt in our pleasure, and Elastica are happy to oblige. The album's one ear-narcotic of a ballad, the shimmering "Nothing Stays the Same," once more steals from Wire (the chorus of "Kidney Bingos" this time). "Best to find/Peace of mind," Frischmann sings, and who better to tell us that than a former friend of the opium pipe.
In the end, women crave steadier versions of themselves. Men crave steadier versions of themselves with breasts. For old (and new?) Elastica fans, the band's cool, collected stance will probably make The Menace both forgivable and forgettable. (A line like "Cocaine is crack/Blondie was black" isn't destined to compete with Cole Porter--or even Lloyd Cole.) You want smarts, try Le Tigre. But no one says nothing with as much verve as Elastica.
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