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Looking Backward: Elastica turns to the punk and early New Wave era for inspiration on its latest release.

Long May The New Wave

Elastica's new album, 'The Menace,' evokes the glory days of the early '80s

By Gina Arnold

THE OTHER DAY, I saw some pricey plastic handbags in a chic store that featured stark prints of early punk and New Wave bands like Blondie, Devo and the Ramones. Sandwiched between frilly dresses in modern prints of pink, yellow and green, the handbags served as a graphic reminder of just how cutting edge the colors black, white and red seemed in those days--not to mention a broad hint that the '70s thing is over, and the '80s are coming back in style.

That being the case, the six-year-old band Elastica, which has always relied on exactly that era for musical inspiration, has timed the release of its new album, The Menace (Atlantic Records), quite well.

The Menace, like Elastica's 1995 self-titled debut, comes across as a sonic throwback to the music of early-'80s English New Wave bands like the Fall and Wire--and of better-known entities like the Buzzcocks, Blondie, Devo and even the Cars.

Elastica's songs use Morse code rhythms and slashing, two-chord tunes, evoking the herky-jerky math-rock that preceded the grunge movement. The album's opening track, "Mad Dog God Dam," is particularly reminiscent of that era: not only does it evoke Wire's "1-2-X-U," but it also bears an uncanny resemblance to Elastica's hit "Connection," which was attacked by Wire for plagiarism. (They settled out of court.)

ELASTICA RODE into the spotlight in the mid-'90s on the female bandwagon, alongside such bands as the Breeders, Babes in Toyland, Veruca Salt, Lush and L7, but the group disappeared from the spotlight after one too many catfights and high jinks.

Now Elastica is attempting to pick up where it left off, but the effort might be a case of too little, too late. Back then, there was at least some lip service played to the idea of gender equality in rock, but in the interim that concept seems to have gone by the wayside.

More damaging is the fact that Elastica has hardly budged from its original strategy of mimicking its forebears. How long can youngish bands re-create the punk era before they start to seem like the modern-day equivalent of supersad hippies?

That said, at least Elastica does it fairly well. Lead singer Justine Frischmann's voice has the same timbre as Chrissie Hynde's, but Elastica is punkier than the Pretenders ever were, and Frischmann can, on occasion, shriek like a less-anguished Kathleen Hanna.

At its best, Elastica plays peppy punk-pop, but music this riff-heavy now reminds me of advertising jingles. Frischmann's former boyfriend Damon Albarn of Blur once wrote a song (titled "Song") whose opening chords are best known as the "yee-haw" tag to a VW commercial. More often than not, Frischmann sounds like she's attempting a rival moment for the airwaves.

COME TO THINK OF IT, on The Menace, Elastica covers the DAF song "Da Da Da," also most familiar as the soundtrack to a car commercial. There's nothing at all wrong with Elastica's spirited rendition of the song, but it does underline the fact that Elastica's music, though catchy and often energetic, is innately shallow pop.

The lyrics always rhyme and tend to be words of one syllable: "I twist/you shout/I'm in/you're out," etc. (from "Your Arse My Place"). When Frischmann sticks with this formula, Elastica is quite fun, if repetitive. You can certainly dance around floppily to songs like "Generator" and "How He Wrote Elastica Man" (a duet with the Fall's fallen hero, Mark E. Smith, and a play on his own song, "How I Wrote Elastic Man"). "KB," which uses every New Wave sound effect in the book and X-Ray Spex-ish overtones, is a good one, and "The Way I Like It" shows promise.

Where Frischmann fails is on songs that aren't upbeat, like "Human," "Nothing Stays the Same," "Miami Nice" and "My Sex." They aren't exactly ballads, but they do mimic the sound of 4AD albums of the early '90s. That is to say, they are full of long keyboard passages, synthesizers, whispered vocals and ambient mood music that hundreds of trip-hop bands do a lot better.

Such music really exposes the fact that, although Elastica always looked great (thanks to Frischmann), as a band it is kind of a one-trick (or one-riff) pony. Frankly, Elastica just isn't that talented. However, neither is anyone else these days, so the worst that can be said about Elastica is that it displays no interest whatsoever in innovation or originality.

The band's strength is a certain, very English sense of fashion, an overlay of aesthetic coolness, a good attitude and several catchy tunes. The Menace isn't all that menacing, and it's definitely not cutting edge, but anyone who has a hankering for a bygone era will not be disappointed in at least one half of the record.

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From the September 7-13, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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