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Five Years and Eight Hours: Elastica Out of Control

Elastica's The Menace arrives with all the keenly calibrated market savvy of a search engine guaranteed to double the Net speed of every 286 computer processor you own. U.K.-released in April, it doesn't come out here until next month; alt-rock's DGC Records stronghold having bitten the dust, the absurdly belated follow-up to the gold-certified 1995 Elastica was picked up by Atlantic, which has seen no need to rush. After five long years, what's a few months? It's a new century. Even theoretically, Blur plus Wire doesn't equal pop anymore.

Since I'd always believed Justine Frischmann's excellent, spiky, ungenerous, limited song band was daring us to throw them away, I snickered callously as their second album deliquesced into heroin rumors and breakup tales. Only morbid curiosity prompted me to check out an import I'd stopped expecting at all. But to my amazement, this wasn't some lazy payday or patched-together triumph of the will. After years of dicking around with perfectionism, paranoia, drugs, and her boyfriend from Blur, Frischmann had reengaged her muse with something like heedless abandon. Bearing down on the fast-hard yet also spacing out here and there, she transformed a constricted, stuck-on-itself punk formalism into an expression of history-be-damned courage and conviction. In a year when so many artistically ambitious rock records have come off confused or out of it, The Menace's cheek was a major up. Reports that Damon Albarn wrote Elastica's good parts had always had the air of sexist hooey. With Frischmann's music undiminished well after she tossed the guy, it became clear these stories were patent lies.

The Menace comprises 13 worked-over songs representing every phase of Elastica's hiatus--from old material by departed guitarist Donna Matthews and a 1998 Mark E. Smith collaboration up to electronic atmospherica, a "Da Da Da" throwaway, and a Frischmann poem supposedly unintended for release. But although half the tracks had already been unveiled in earlier EP versions, almost every one was rerecorded quickly by a new lineup late last year, yielding an album that sounds like one entity for 38 quick-changing minutes, a real-life fusion of the raw and the cooked untouched by studio glaze or lo-fi schmutz. This is a far less controlled and controlling piece of postpunk aesthetics than Elastica, emotional and pretty as well as tight and discordant. Fashion being fashion, it's gotten mixed reviews in England, where it somehow failed to debut #1 the way Elastica did; as one arbiter lamented: "Once they were fabulous; now they're just another band." It will be better received here, where the artists arouse fewer resentments even if they were bigger than Blur. But fashion being fashion, I doubt many will understand that whereas Elastica was a good little album that came at precisely the right time, The Menace is a better one at a moment when it could end up having no impact whatsoever.

It was to pin down this particular permutation of that time-tested quandary that I decided to see Elastica live, a need I'd never felt back when Frischmann was vying with Courtney Love, Polly Jean Harvey, Kim Deal, Kathleen Hanna, Alanis Morissette, and the matched leaders of Veruca Salt. Crass or idealistic, dull or brilliant, all these heroines were more fully energized by the inchoate promise of Nirvanamania than was the cool, well-educated, avowedly shallow Frischmann. Most had responded with spirit to the promise's breakdown, too. But now Frischmann certainly belonged in their company, and I wanted a sense of how she was seen and how she saw herself, something records alone rarely provide. I hoped to catch a club gig while visiting London, only to learn that my sole shot would require considerably more effort. So June 24, driving on the left and dragging my jet-lagged wife and daughter along, I wended my way past Stonehenge and Polly Jean Harvey's hometown to the 21st Glastonbury Festival, and got a different story than I was expecting.

I spent only eight hours at Glastonbury, including the two it took us to find our car. And since the weather was chilly but rainless, I missed the archetypal Glastonbury experience, which involves filthy tents, filthier latrines, and mud to your knees. Still, as a veteran of two Woodstocks who's glad he took a pass on the third, I was impressed. Every year, 100,000 ticket buyers plus uncounted gatecrashers and nearly 1000 migrating merchants gather for three days of music and other "contemporary performing arts" (Churchill's granddaughter programs those) in a vast celebration of alt-rock resistance, rave ecstasy-tripping, hippie nostalgia, New Age blather, and promotional self-service that sends half a million pounds to Oxfam, Greenpeace, and other thorns in capital's side. It wasn't an idyll--898 tent thefts, 105 robberies, and 27 assaults were reported, and there were moments on dark outer roads that got our antennae up. But for all its blokish fucking about, the collective inebriation seemed more than a party, almost provisionally communal--cross-generational and friendly on principle, with a thick layer of the "crusties" or "travellers" who've been making bohemian homelessness a skint, nomadic pastorale since Thatcher refinanced 10 Downing Street.

Although Glastonbury is a hallowed Brit-biz tradition and Elastica are credibly reported to have jump-started themselves with an incandescent Reading Festival set last year, I had a hard time envisioning the band in this environment. They were too London, too neat. Nothing for it but to wait and see, though, and having determined that the Dance Tent's strobe 'n' thrum weren't family-friendly, we elected to pass on Rinrse and claim turf in front of the Other Stage for a band I'd never heard of called Feeder. Elastica were scheduled for the same space an hour later.

Two Londoners out of South Wales plus a Japanese bassist and a new second guitarist, Feeder have been around as long as Elastica. Think punkier, schlockier Everclear, or Third Eye Blind with stronger tunes and nicer feelings. They spent eight months touring the States in 1998, including a run with Candlebox, and began denting Brit radio with the rough pop of 1999's Yesterday Went Too Soon. At Glastonbury, Feeder were energizers, cheerful lads who announced their songs in the confidence that those of us who weren't jumping around shouting the words might wonder what they were called when we hummed them later. They could happen big, even here. Cute 32-year-old lead everything Grant Nicholson is the talent; blond-with-black-roots Taka Hirose banging his yellow axe like Flea gone Dee Dee Ramone is the show. When the set ended, drummer Jon Lee quickly donned a jacket--air temperature was dipping toward 50.

Though it was even colder when Elastica sauntered out a little too much later, bare-shouldered, bare-midriffed Frischmann never betrayed discomfort. Physical discomfort, anyway--her "Allo good to see you again" and occasional "Cheers" seemed no more sincere than her jape about waking up the cows or the faucet-penis that danced out to illustrate "Connection." The show was fine because the musical conception remained consistently arresting, and new keyboardist Mew made a beguiling Flava Flav, her pants slipping down her slim hips as she bumped and pogoed and repaired occasionally to her putative instrument. But the band did seem out of place--whether suffering Glastonbury or courting an audience or fighting catarrh I have no way of knowing. Feeder will never be as interesting a band; allow me to cringe preemptively at the shite Nicholson could write about stardom. But they felt privileged to be on that stage, and everyone within earshot knew it. Feeder hungered for contact (and success) on whatever terms the marketplace set down. Elastica was there for the art, and if the blokes didn't get it, tough titty. In this marketplace, that's become a limited attitude no matter how much courage it takes.

We knew enough to hit the parking lots before dark, but with Elastica off late there was an offer we couldn't resist at the big Pyramid Stage. Since all three of us loved the Pet Shop Boys, we'd peek in for a few songs before trekking back toward London. Neil and Chris and their mystery keyboardist and their fat tap-dancing backup singers went on at 9 sharp. By the time I checked my watch it was 9:36, night was falling, and all of us were perfectly willing to let our forest-green whatever-it-was sedan tell us when it needed us.

If Elastica didn't blend in at Glastonbury, how do you think old West Ender Neil Tennant felt? He was bantering urbanely with TV interviewers about it all week. Yet his show was magnificent, and everyone knew it. Standing behind two mums whose little girl's hair came too close to a candle and a het-looking couple with the man wearing a dress, my party watched as the artiste unfurled a catalogue grander than one show can hold--a latter-day Noel Coward exploiting every technology the marketplace had to offer. Well back, we attended the video screens as much as the stage, with special regard for "Suburbia"'s hedgerows and "Young Offender"'s prison footage as well as Tennant's Garthian cowboy hat and even more Garthian bald spot. He wasn't Mr. Warmth, that would have been out of character, but when it came time to close he said thank you Elvis and left every drunk, tourist, crusty, and aging pop dolly on the battered greensward singing "You were always on my mind." It was a new century, and Neil Tennant, once fabulous, was now legendary. I'm sorry to say I can't imagine Justine Frischmann ever joining him.

Village Voice, Aug. 1, 2000