When I posted my review of Sleeper’s album Smart a couple of months ago, several of my American readers commented that they’d never heard of that particular Britpop band.
That’s completely understandable. The Internet was not ubiquitous in 1995 and there was no effort to promote Sleeper in the States. For Americans, Britpop pretty much began and ended with Oasis—Suede, Blur and Pulp were little more than faint blips on American radar. I wouldn’t have been aware of any of those blips back in the ’90s if I hadn’t encountered the one Britpop freak working at Tower Records on Columbus Avenue.
After publishing that review, another reader suggested that I should explore a Britpop album by a band called Denim. “Who the fuck is Denim?” I wondered. The guy at Tower Records hadn’t mentioned them.
I hate not knowing things, so I started to research Denim, unaware that I was about to engage in the modern equivalent of the Twelve Labors of Hercules. Here’s a summary of the backstory I was able to cobble together:
- Denim is one of three musical entities fronted by a guy named Lawrence. The other two are Felt and Go-Kart Mozart. I’d never heard of them either. Felt came before Denim, so I thought I’d check them out and leave Go-Kart Mozart for another day.
- I learned that there have been three bands named Felt. One was a band from Alabama that released a grand total of one album in 1971. Another is a current hip-hop group, so fuck that. Lawrence’s Felt was an indie pop band in the 80s. After releasing ten albums and ten singles, Lawrence claimed that releasing ten albums and ten singles was his goal all along and disbanded the group. Their albums were generally praised by the critics but only modestly popular in the U. K., in large part due to the typical indie shoestring budget. “Alan McGee, who was briefly Lawrence’s label boss when he released a couple of Felt albums on Creation, described him as ‘Britain’s best undiscovered pop star‘”.
- Felt had a shot at a major label contract but “missed their chance when, in 1986, A&R men from 11 record companies came to a gig in west London. Unfortunately, Lawrence took LSD for the first time an hour before their set. He went on stage, looked at the sold-out audience, asked ‘Why are you all staring at me?’ and refused to sing a note until everyone left.”
- While that incident may reasonably lead one to assume that Lawrence was “out of control,” nothing could be further from the truth. In a 2019 interview on Record Collector, he described his approach to band leadership during the Felt era: “Every single thing on those 10 records was my idea. Everything down to the plectrums we used. No sunburst plectrums; that was the big rule. A sunburst plectrum was something from the old school for me. If you were a modern new band you had a white plectrum – that’s the minutiae of it. There were big things, but it went right down to the plectrums, what strap you wore, the clothes – everything was my idea.”
- O-kay . . .
- After Felt bit the dust, Lawrence formed Denim. Though there were the usual and predictable changes in personnel over the years, Felt had a relatively stable lineup and the guys who played on the albums were considered band members. Denim consisted of Lawrence and a pack of “session men and aging glitter-rockers” (including two guys from The Glitter Band). Lawrence intended Denim to be a studio band, believing that “rock music was finished, and DJs could get our records into the charts.” Therefore, it is more accurate to view Denim as Lawrence’s “brainchild” rather than as a stable musical entity.
- Lawrence signed Denim to a dance-oriented subsidiary of London Records (Boys Own Recordings) because he believed that with the resources of a major label behind him he had “the chance to make the album I’d always wanted.” That album, Back in Denim, was released in 1992 to general critical acclaim.
- Boys Own Recordings went bankrupt because Back in Denim cost a whole lot of money to make and didn’t do dick on the charts. The album took an incredible two years to record, and producer John Leckie laid the blame for the delays squarely on Lawrence’s shoulders, at one point banning him from the studio and telling him: “I’ve worked with Phil Spector and John Lennon and Syd Barrett, but I can’t take this anymore. You’re madder than any of them.”
- Denim on Ice was released on another label (duh) in 1996. Like its predecessor, Denim on Ice was both well-received and a commercial failure. The collective yawn from the music-consuming public forced Lawrence to temporarily abandon the concept of “studio-band-only.” “I succumbed to the live thing. I phoned Jarvis [Cocker] and said, ‘Can we play with you?’ They [Pulp] were doing an arena tour and they didn’t charge us but the whole thing cost 22 grand just to take us around the venues. Echo [the label] paid for it but closed the purse strings after that.”
- Despite Denim’s less-than-stellar commercial performance, Lawrence had another shot at big label stardom after EMI showed interest and released a Denim compilation of B-sides and loose ends in early 1997 (Novelty Rock). The lead single from what would have been a third Denim studio album was ready to hit the shelves, but the scheduled release date coincided with the death of Princess Diana, leading EMI to cancel the project and wish Lawrence all the best. Some of the songs from that abandoned album would wind up in the Go-Kart Mozart catalog.
- Lawrence rebounded from that twist of fate by releasing the first Go-Kart Mozart album a few years later, then went into a tailspin, “bedeviled by mental health problems, poverty and, for a while, homelessness.” Interest in his work was somewhat rekindled with the 2011 release of the documentary Lawrence of Belgravia. Unfortunately, I was unable to view the documentary in its entirety as it’s not available for streaming in France and a copy of the limited-release DVD would have set me back about two hundred smackers.
- Lawrence has always been something of a recluse; prior to the documentary, he shared very little about his personal life except his admiration for glam rock and Tom Verlaine of Television (the latter’s influence is much more obvious on Felt). He also expressed a burning desire to be famous enough to get the chance to meet Kate Moss. When Felt’s catalog was re-released in 2018, Lawrence surprisingly agreed to a series of promotional interviews that filled in some of the blanks, but because I have not yet mastered Lawrence-speak, I wound up with more questions than answers.
In addition to the narrative challenges, I ran into all kinds of availability problems with Denim. The reader who suggested Denim recommended their maiden effort, Back in Denim. Well, I guess I could have spent NINETY FUCKING EURO for a Japanese import copy of Back in Denim on Amazon, but alas, it’s “currently unavailable.” Only one of Denim’s albums is available on iTunes . . . but not in France. I had to get an American friend to buy it and send it to me in a series of emails.
In keeping with my ethical stance to never accept gifts or any form of compensation for my critical efforts, I immediately paid back the $1.99 she shelled out on my behalf.
As I navigated the virtual minefield of Lawrence-Denim research, there were several moments when I said to myself, “Fuck this guy. I’ve got more important things to do in life. Where did I put my gardening shears?” What saved Lawrence from altrockchick oblivion was the guilt I would have felt for letting my $1.99 investment go to waste in these difficult economic times.
So I slipped on my headphones and gave Denim on Ice a virtual spin . . . then a funny thing happened.
I started giggling during the first song, continued laughing through the next two, and by song #6 I had achieved a state of near-hysteria.
Denim on Ice is a hoot!
Two adjectives pop up with noticeable frequency in the articles devoted to Lawrence: “eccentric” and “childlike.” Those same adjectives have been used with similar frequency in analyses of Thelonious Monk. What they signify is a person who doesn’t pay much attention to boundaries or the way people “should act” or “should think.” The contradictory aspect of that kind of personality is while they don’t allow “what other people think” to interfere with the creative process, they have an equally strong desire to be recognized for their unique contributions.
Monk believed that “The piano ain’t got no wrong notes,” a sacrilegious perspective in most genres. Eventually the initially hostile reaction to his dissonant, angular lines and his frequently dramatic, percussive approach to piano (one critic called him “the elephant on the keyboard”) turned into admiration, and Monk is now recognized as one of the greatest composers and pianists in the field of jazz.
Lawrence, on the other hand, did very little to extend the musical boundaries of pop-rock and is very unlikely to earn recognition for instrumental or vocal virtuosity. Many of the songs that comprise Denim on Ice are deliberately loaded with tired musical tropes and riffs you’ve heard a hundred times before; I figured out the chords to all eighteen tracks on my first pass through the album. Where Lawrence excels is in his creative yet disciplined approach to compositional arrangement, in lyrics that bypass the censor in the brain that prevents a person from saying things that wouldn’t go over well in polite company and in his superb sense of comic timing that comes through in both the music and the lyrics. Critics have described his use of humor as “satiric,” “mocking” and even “goofy,” but I’d rather forget about the labels and tell you that Lawrence’s music reflects his unique personality, as described in a piece on Huck: “In person, it doesn’t take long to realise what a unique character Lawrence is: obsessive, particular, serious, funny, honest and odd—sometimes all within the space of a minute.”
Though in that piece Lawrence dismissed the suggestion that he suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, he did embrace the accusation of being a perfectionist: ““Oh god, I want to be. So much. It’s really hard but I strive to be.” This perfectionist streak is manifested in the air-tight musicianship and carefully-constructed arrangements of Denim on Ice, and combined with his unique takes on life, explains his gift for making the familiar seem fresh and original.
Denim on Ice has been accurately described as “synth-heavy,” an accurate description indeed—no less than seven synth players make appearances on the album. The “glam-rock” label attached to the album is manifested in the mix of synth and guitar. While I have frequently deplored the overuse and misuse of synthesizers in rock music, Lawrence’s perfectionism translates into a highly intentional use of the instrument, using its signature and sometimes cheesy sound to enhance the humor or faux-drama of a particular song.
After a brief introduction from a computer-generated voice announcing, “Hello. We are Denim. We welcome you to Denim on Ice,” a single snare hit introduces the relentless beat and soaring lead guitar of “The Great Pub Rock Revival.” After extensive research, I found out that there was no pub rock revival anywhere on the planet in 1996; Lawrence invented this nonexistent burst of nostalgia to attack nostalgia itself, as in “The next thing you know, they’re going to do a Jetsons remake.” Lawrence’s vivid imagination predicted the eventual outcome of such a revival, focusing particularly on the money to be made by capitalizing on the human yearning for the “good old days.”
There’s an auction going down at Christie’s & they’re selling his headband
They say it’s gonna cost a bomb – don’t know why – the guy’s still alive
And there’s a beermat from the Hope & Anchor in Islington
There’s a corner chewed off – they say he ate it in ’75
Translations for American readers: a beermat is that branded cardboard coaster slipped under your drink at most bars; the Hope & Anchor was the epicenter of the Pub Rock scene in the early ’70s. I started laughing with “the guy’s still alive” and laughed with even more intensity after “they say he ate it in ’75.” I will never understand the human tendency to elevate someone’s status just because they croaked off nor the human fascination with worthless artifacts consecrated through contact with a celebrity. The verse is immediately followed by the catchy chorus, which will undergo three transformations in the song (“headband” becomes “sex & drugs” and “pub rock”):
And there’s a headband over the ocean
A beermat over the sea
Everybody believes what they’re told to
Everybody believes what they read in the NME
The over-the-ocean over-the-sea bits remind me of McCartney’s “Hands across the water/Heads across the sky” nonsense—exaggerated but oddly uplifting imagery devoid of concrete meaning. The more important line is “Everbody believes what they read in the NME,” especially when Lawrence adds his own views on the subject by repeating the line “Everybody but me” three times. Given his backstory, that little line is rich with significance—a bit of self-congratulation for refusing to follow the latest trends in the quest for commercial success combined with a faint hope that his artistic stubbornness will someday break through the barriers and win a larger audience for his efforts.
The music is simple, straightforward, rocking and delivered with palpable energy. The lead guitar of the intro gives way to a synthesizer solo (suitably introduced by Lawrence) that adds a modal flavor to the mix. You can hear the Tom Verlaine/young Lou Reed influence in Lawrence’s vocal, casually mixing melodic and non-melodic phrasing with confidence as he name-checks several pub rock artists. “The Great Pub Rock Revival” is an exciting opening track, full of undeniable spirit and humor.
I’m not sure who made the decision to release “It Fell Off the Back of a Lorry” as the album’s single, as the only thing it has in common with most hit singles is repetition—lots of repetition. The song has no verses—only two bridges, an extended instrumental break (with synth, of course) and a chorus that is repeated six times:
Officer, we’re so very sorry
But it fell off the back of a lorry.
We never learn exactly what fell off the back of the lorry, only that whatever it was wound up in the hands of teenagers who ran afoul of the law for absconding with the fallen contents. While the song makes for a lousy single, the musical variations—using a chorus of children’s voices on the second bridge and the diverse harmonic response lines in the extended fade (in part facilitated by a small chord change from E minor to E major)—form a build that makes the listener relax and embrace the silliness of it all. It may not make for a great single, but I can see this working as a party song after everyone has thoroughly drenched themselves in alcohol.
“Romeo Jones Is in Love Again” features a socially-awkward narrator who has just met a girl and isn’t the most polished conversationalist in the world:
Ah, what’s your name?
Yeah, mine’s that too!
This social awkwardness will appear in other songs on the album; here Lawrence seems to use it to demonstrate the emptiness of introductory small talk. The chorus harmonies are excellent, and the simple G-Eminor pattern allows the pianist to have a rollicking good time delivering classic honky-tonk riffs.
Denim on Ice is not all fun and games; the song “Brumburger” expands Lawrence’s playing field significantly with its stream-of-consciousness, censor-disabled, hard-ass attitude proto-rap.
But right now you’re probably asking yourself, “What the fuck is a Brumburger?” Ah, ’tis a long and winding road:
- Cliff Richard’s last movie was the 1973 release Take Me High. Cliff plays a merchant banker who is excited about a promised promotion to New York, then crushed to learn he’s being diverted to Birmingham in order to save a failing restaurant.
- He gets over his disappointment by “falling in love with the owner and co-founding a glamorous new burger bar.” (IMDB) They name the restaurant and its signature dish “Brumburger” because one nickname for Birmingham is “Brum.”
- The Brumburger is made of a beef burger, blue cheese mayo, lettuce, onion, tomato, bacon jam and pickle.
- The film contains two songs about Brumburgers: “Brumburger Duet” and “Brumburger Finale.”
- The film has been called a “cinematic love song to Birmingham” due to the appearance of several landmarks.
- Lawrence was born in Birmingham.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure that any of that information will help you decode the song. In the first verse, Lawrence is held captive by his gun-wielding babe and her knife-wielding brother who steal his guitar and coat. Next, he goes on a blind date and meets up with disappointment: the girl’s coif resembles something out of the Hair Bear Bunch. In the third verse, he describes how he stole a cat from his mate’s garage, placed the cat on a window sill and watched it fall to its doom courtesy of an old man with a lawnmower. After that verse, we temporarily lose connection with the rap when a chorus of pseudo-soul singers deliver an enthusiastic round of scat with all the energy of The Fifth Dimension. Once we return to jive mode, Lawrence takes a moment to engage in a bit of real-time self-reflection . . .
I think I’ll stay on these chords a little while, babe
I think I kind of like the way that they flow
I don’t think I’ll deviate much from the melody line
I think I kind of like the way that it goes
. . . then follows that line of thought with a stunning confession:
I once killed a baby before it was born, babe
I don’t think it’s murder it’s up to us, isn’t it?
I didn’t think about the consequences just didn’t want a kid, nah
Don’t give me that right on crap I don’t need that shit
The listener hasn’t processed the shock of that jarring juxtaposition before Lawrence moves on to a new topic: dissatisfaction with his current love interest (“You said you don’t go out but you’re out every night, girl/It’s just that you’re not out every night with me”). After a reprise of the first verse and a second appearance by the soul singers, Lawrence finally admits what’s really bugging him about this chick:
I don’t care and I just don’t give a damn
I think a lot but it’s not about you, girl
You suck me off but I can’t come in your mouth
You’re looking good but it’s not good enough for me
You tried hard but the slope’s kinda slippery
I don’t like [Brewster??] or Dostoyevsky
Is he saying he can’t deposit his goo down her throat because she doesn’t like goo or because he disdains her admiration for The Brothers Karamazov? Does the goo have some connection to the blue cheese mayo in the Brumburger? I have to confess I’m rather baffled by it all—and even more so because I actually like the song. If pressed, I’d probably tell you that what I like is the way his mind works, because it works a lot like mine. I’ve always got a million things running through my head and most of the time those things emerge into consciousness in the same disorderly fashion Lawrence displays here. I’ll be concentrating on one thing when a twenty-year-old regret pops into my mind followed by a sexual fantasy followed by worries about finances followed by the nice dinner I had last week followed by that crossword clue about Julius La Rosa followed by something I read in Nice-Matin (usually a car crash) followed by a scrap of music . . . the internal dialogue goes on forever. The only difference between Lawrence and me is he that had the guts to capture it in a song.
The much lighter “The Supermodels” comes next, with its playful guitar-synth fills and delightful series of rhymes (Rita-meet-he(r)-Anita/Pete(r)-Rita-meane(r)-Ryvita-eat-a/Pete(r)-Rita-Anita-two-seate(r)-cheetah-Rita). Lawrence displays his talent for knowing exactly when to use unison singing to its best effect, making it easy to imagine a video featuring a group of hot babes strutting down the runway looking directly into the camera in sync with the line “WE ARE THE SUPERMODELS.” Too bad Lawrence couldn’t swing the video production costs.
Equally delightful is the song that triggered hysterics, “Shut Up Sidney.” Described by Heather Phares of All Music as a “comical spew against techno-pop and other chart abominations,” Lawrence takes on multiple bands and genres including Tangerine Dream’s Quinoa album, Kraftwerk, British groups like Sigue Sigue Sputnik and Westworld, and synth-pop bands like Telex (“Oh god!”) and Trio (“Oh no!”). Each set of rapid-fire digs is followed by the unison chorus, “SHUT UP SIDNEY, that’s not rock ‘n’ roll!” I think the reason I find the song so funny has to do with Lawrence’s unbridled expression of genuine disgust for musicians who (in his opinion) qualify as frauds—it’s the same way I feel when I review albums by the pompous and the pretenders. And yeah, I get that he’s probably letting off steam about his own lack of chart success, but I think he is genuinely offended by what he considers half-assed music, and so am I.
“Mrs. Mills” is a product of one of Lawrence’s not infrequent journeys to New York, his go-to place when he was in need of a reboot. This gentle, melodic pop song opens with a description of his own struggles in the field of social interaction, offering a circular defense for behavior that most people would dismiss as weird:
When I put the door back on the stable
Then I was able to come out again
I believe that no one is unstable
We’re just lacking in confidence
Because we ain’t got no friends
The rest of the song describes several women he met in the Village, all of whom qualify as a “little bit off” when held to the standard of acceptable social behavior. Rather than dismissing them as hopeless losers, Lawrence offers them understanding and assistance:
Kathy take a step out of your front door
Then take a few more
You’ll see it’s alright
I’ll meet you by the station in the morning
You said you don’t like the daylight?
Okay, we’ll make it the night
His preference for female companionship is emphasized in the chorus, sweetened by vocal harmony:
And you can send all your letters
In care of my lawyer in New York
And you can keep all my letters
Except the ones that were sent to me by girls
Compared to the other notable Britpop outsider—the misanthropic Luke Haines of The Auteurs—Lawrence is all cuddles and hugs. This is even more apparent in “Best Song in the World,” a love song that “never said I love you,” avoiding the usual clichés in favor of accepting the other for what s/he is. No, it’s not the best song in the world, but I love that corny little organ riff.
We now shift back to the cinematic with “Synthesisers in the Rain” (British spelling), a masterful takedown of the manufactured drama you’ll find in bad progressive rock and in much of the music from the synth-loaded ’80s. It’s best to view the song as a mini-operetta in four scenes:
Scene One: A ghostly sound rises and falls from the synth, interrupted by the sound of a leaky tire. The ghosts give it another go, but die a horrible death when the tire goes completely flat. The noise is supplanted by the classic drone combination of major chord/major seventh chord (C/Fmaj7), its low volume and slow tempo screaming, “Okay, we’re going to make serious music now, so prepare to be dazzled by our faux sophistication!” Enter Lawrence. Aw, he looks and sounds sad. His girl failed to show up at the disco and when went he went to fetch her his mother blew him off with the tried-and-true she’s-doing-her-hair-luv diversion. Stunned, Lawrence manages to deliver a round of the stirring chorus:
Synthesisers in the rain,
Synthesisers in the rain,
Sythnesisers in the rain,
Synthesisers in the rain.
Scene Two: The underlying beat gains prominence over the drone as Lawrence mopes off to a nearby corner and lights a fag under a street lamp, from which vantage point he witnesses his dreams of a romantic evening being smashed to smithereens:
A car pulled up, and you got in and you both drove off and that’s a drag
Synthesisers in the rain,
Synthesisers in the rain,
Sythnesisers in the rain,
Synthesisers in the rain.
Scene Three: The entire male cast from H. M. S. Pinafore appears out of nowhere with a spirited round of la-la-las that begins in the key of E minor but eventually resolves to the G major chord that opens the chorus.
Scene Four: The music returns to a pompous calm, where Lawrence is waiting to deliver yet another rendition of the chorus. But wait! I hear a moment of dissonance! The voice harmonizing with Lawrence seems to be on the edge of tears! Calm returns momentarily in the form of semi-stop time where the voices remind us of those . . . “synthesizers . . . synthesizers . . . in the rain.” AND BOOM! IT’S GRAND FINALE TIME! The synthetic sounds rise, the percussion intensifies, Lawrence repeats “synthesizers in the rain” ad infinitum while his harmonic partner does a pretty good imitation of Clare Torry on Dark Side of the Moon, howling soulfully to the yawning heavens in a game attempt to temper the pretentiousness of it all with a touch of soul cred. Fade. Fini!
I guess Lawrence decided to have the tenors and baritones from “Synthesisers in the Rain” stick around for a while, because here they are again, slipping easily into working-class accents on the chorus that opens the “Job Centre.” Though the unison vocals brim with confidence about their job prospects—reinforced by the muscular rock background—Lawrence counters their enthusiasm with a cold shot of reality:
On the TV politicians piss me off with what they say
It doesn’t matter who’s in power they won’t help us anyway
Take a look around these tower blocks what’s happening these days
Build a fence around me and put me out to graze
That verse makes for a nice segue into “Council Houses,” where Lawrence swears “Ooh, I won’t pay the rent/On this, on this concrete slum imprisonment.” The song is also noted for his defense of modernist architects Le Corbusier, Mies Van der Rohe and Walter Gropius. Lawrence believed they had the right idea but the city planners botched the implementation with their devotion to classism:
The lazy sods didn’t even try
Why put a pig in a palace?
Put it in a sty
Lawrence doesn’t mess with the socio-political too often on Denim on Ice, but when he does, he cuts right to the heart of the matter.
I firmly believe there are no perfect albums, and the odds of getting close to perfection fall exponentially with each track you add to the mix. Loaded with eighteen tracks that add up to fifty-seven minutes of music, Denim on Ice is bound to have some stinkers, and the first is “Glue & Smack,” a close-enough-to-minor-blues number to tell me that Lawrence doesn’t have the voice for the blues. The song has some interesting (if bizarre) imagery but never really comes together. And though I liked “Jane Suck Died in ’77” the first time around because of its early punk feel, this tribute to the legendary punk journalist (who did not die in 1977) gets a little too cute for my tastes—I just don’t think “punk” and “cute” go together.
But I’m always up for oral sex . . . uh, wait a minute . . . hold that thought . . . what?
Vicky’s alright, she’s a little rough
When she comes up from underneath
And when she goes down, I can feel her crown
I told her, “You’re wearing grandad’s false teeth.”
You’re wearing grandad’s false teeth (yes you are, now)
You’re wearing grandad’s false teeth
I better watch out, she is trying it on
She put a pinpick in my sheath
Instead I go down with my dental dam
She told me, “You’re wearing grandad’s false teeth.”
Once I get past my own pain memories, I spend most of my time laughing my ass off to “Grandad’s False Teeth” while thoroughly enjoying the slick Allman Brothers imitation on slide guitar. Still, I find two aspects of the song disconcerting. The first is the mention of a dental dam, as one of my primary motivations for finding a permanent female partner was to never have to use a dental dam again—the taste of polyurethane isn’t my idea of a good time. The second jarring moment involves the introduction of a children’s chorus in a song about oral sex. Now, the lines handed to the kids had nothing to do with this form of adult pleasure (“Grandad, where’s your false teeth?”) and I’m sure the kids were safe with Lawrence, but just like “punk” and “cute” don’t go together, “sex” and “the sounds of little children” are guaranteed moment-killers.
“Silly Rabbit” opens with the faux-string flourish common to many soul and disco numbers, but quickly turns into a standard pop song with lyrics suitable for kids who love Trix. I do think the line “I want to hear my songs on your radio” has been misinterpreted as Lawrence whining about failing to make the charts. When he tells his girl he wants to hear his song on her radio, it’s like Colin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney singing, “I wanna be your Joey Ramone/Pictures of me on your bedroom door.” Having dismissed the love you/want you stuff with his labored pronunciation of “obviously,” he’s hoping for less cliché and more authenticity—and being a musician, he’s going to express his passions through musical metaphors.
And right on cue, Lawrence delivers the most beautiful song on the album, one that further explores his concept of intimacy. One of my most fervent beliefs is that intimate relationships should be consciously and actively chosen every single day and completely free of any obligation. In “Don’t Bite Too Much Out of the Apple,” Lawrence validates that belief from the perspective of real-life consequences: if you truly love another person, you must also defend their freedom to make choices, even if those choices lead to the end of the relationship:
In my younger days
I was in search of big romance
But I never got the girl
You see I didn’t even stand a chance
For it wasn’t meant to be
My spirit dictates to me
That once I’ve held a girl in my arms
Then I must set her free
He then sings about one of the hopes behind his decision to head for New York: “A sweet girl to breathe all the life back into me.” Back in London, he remembers a girl who seems to have met those qualifications, but now he finds himself on the other end of the bargain, and yeah—it hurts:
Now I got to thinking
Of a girl I left behind
Ah she’s beautiful, maybe destiny’s
Caught my spirit way off its guard
She writes letters to me
They’re as sweet as can be
They say ‘Don’t bite too much out of the apple
And forget about me’
I love how he just leaves it right there—the endless paradox that loving someone can also mean letting go. Lawrence’s arrangement is equally beautiful, especially the lovely interplay between piano and acoustic guitar. I wish he’d left things right there instead of inserting “Myriad of Hoops” in the follow-up slot. The song deals with the bullshit that accompanies most relationships, leaving the listener with a sour taste in the soul.
The closing track, “Denim on Ice” features a farewell from Lawrence set to rather somber music that I will reproduce in its entirety:
So, we’ve come to the end
There’s not much left to say now
Select recap: weigh up the merchandise
You’ve heard songs about pop rock, oral sex and junkies
And that’s Denim . . . Denim on Ice
It’s been a long, slow trough
Thank God it’s over
I nearly went off my rocker once or twice
I dedicate these songs to all the guys that helped me
Make Denim . . . Denim on Ice
That’s Denim. . . Denim on Ice
On ice . . . on ice . . . on ice
Having just “met” Lawrence for the first time, I’m reluctant to make any long-term commitment or attempt to make a generalized statement of his artistic value. All I know at the moment is that Denim on Ice is a superb and refreshing piece of work from one of the most unique personalities in the field of music. I look forward to exploring more of his work, and while I can’t guarantee that I will love every step of that journey, I’m pretty damned sure that the trip will be very, very interesting.
After less than an hour of research on this album, my trusty bullshit detector began flashing red.
As I dug in further, I couldn’t decide whether the bullshit was coming from the band or the buzz. Let’s look at the buzz first.
On the strength of two hit singles, fantastic radio exposure and tabloid headlines trumpeting Justine Frischmann’s intimate relationship with Damon Albarn, Elastica became the fastest-selling album in UK history, shooting to the top of the charts upon release. The reviews were universally favorable, and Albarn and Frischmann earned the monikers of “King and Queen of Britpop.”
Perhaps my British readers can help me out a little here—I’ve always found the ins and outs of British royalty confusing. Since Justine also slept with Brett Anderson of Suede, does that make Brett a prince or a duke? Or a pretender who should be locked up in the Tower of London? I’m also surprised that Justine earned her title on the basis of one album and intimate relations with two Britpop stars. Was her discovery of ants in the carpet the clincher? Well, shit—since I’ve written 484 reviews, fucked a whole lot more than two guys and have never had ants in my carpet, I hereby declare myself Queen of France! Now go eat your goddamned cake!
Retrospective reviews have been equally fawning and unusually assertive in their defense of the album. The BBC’s Anthony Leaver crossed the line into nastiness when he proclaimed: “Elastica is a neglected gem from a time when bands were dominated by effervescent lead singers – none more so than the first lady of Britpop, Justine Frischmann . . . Elastica is as memorable a record as the pretenders to Frischmann’s throne at the time – Sleeper with Louise Wener and Republica’s Saffron – were forgettable.”
Now I’m more confused. Now she’s the “First Lady?” I thought that was an American thing. Leaver’s review was written years after Justine moved to Colorado, so why does she get to keep her title if Harry and Meghan had to give up theirs? Does that mean Damon Albarn is the rightful prime minister?
That would be fucking awesome!
Then there’s poor Noel Gallagher, who certainly had a claim to some kind of title given his extensive contributions. Alas, Justine was quite vocal about her hatred of Oasis, so he didn’t have a chance at winnowing his way into the royal family. Speaking of Mr. Gallagher. . . the critics consistently blasted him for plagiarism (T. Rex, The Beatles) but to this day still give Justine a pass on the blatant ripoffs that had to be settled out of court. Quietus: “Originality Be Damned: Elastica’s Albums Reappraised.” AV Club: “Elastica’s debut stole from the best, embodying Britpop while staying punk.” Pitchfork: “Elastica’s obvious appropriation of two male bands’ riffs looks like citation more than theft.” Erlewine on AllMusic: “Elastica’s debut album may cop a riff here and there from Wire or the Stranglers, yet no more than Led Zeppelin did with Willie Dixon or the Beach Boys with Chuck Berry.”
Erlewine’s “review” is part of another pattern I found: universal acclaim for Elastica without much to back it up. Here’s Erlewine in his limited view of entirety:
Elastica’s debut album may cop a riff here and there from Wire or the Stranglers, yet no more than Led Zeppelin did with Willie Dixon or the Beach Boys with Chuck Berry. The key is context. Elastica can make the rigid artiness of Wire into a rocking, sexy single with more hooks than anything on Pink Flag (“Connection”) or rework the Stranglers’ “No More Heroes” into a more universal anthem that loses none of its punkiness (“Waking Up”). But what makes Elastica such an intoxicating record is not only the way the 16 songs speed by in 40 minutes, but that they’re nearly all classics. The riffs are angular like early Adam & the Ants, the melodies tease like Blondie, and the entire band is as tough as the Clash, yet they never seem anything less than contemporary. Justine Frischmann’s detached sexuality adds an extra edge to her brief, spiky songs — “Stutter” roars about a boyfriend’s impotence, “Car Song” makes sex in a car actually sound sexy, “Line Up” slags off groupies, and “Vaseline” speaks for itself. Even if the occasional riff sounds like an old wave group, the simple fact is that hardly any new wave band made records this consistently rocking and melodic.
Sounds to me like Erlewine has a fetish for name-dropping and a hard-on for Ms. Frischmann but I am no more informed about the music than I was before I started reading. I see he’s still hung up on New Wave years after that fake genre bit the dust. And “nearly all classics?” “Oh, for fuck’s sake,” sayeth I.
Even the Wikipedia author of the entry on Elastica gets into the act. After noting that the album went straight to #1 in the U.K. (true) and was the fastest-selling debut album since Definitely Maybe (also true), the author comments, “The record also did well (italics mine) in the US, climbing to a peak of number 66 on the Billboard 200 after 11 weeks on the chart.”
Wow! I’m going to take full advantage of that re-definition of “did well” straightaway! I’m very proud that I graduated 66th in my class, that my high school softball team was rated #66 in San Francisco and that I came in sixty-sixth in the Miss California pageant (I would have placed higher but one of my nipple clamps fell off during my dance routine). True story: my dad did better than Elastica, placing 64th out of 65 in a local battle of the bands.
Conclusion: The buzz is so over the top that it cannot be trusted.
Since the buzz focused almost entirely on Ms. Frischmann (understandable since she was the frontwoman and better at marketing herself to the press), and since she either wrote or had a hand in writing all of the songs on Elastica, any evaluation of Elastica’s music has to begin with her.
Honestly, I have no idea why both the media and the UK public found her so fascinating. Based on what I’ve read, she comes across as insufferably arrogant, mean-spirited and highly pretentious. In her Elastica role, she presents herself as a more artsy version of Sandy in Grease after she took up cigarettes, donned some leather and decided she was a greaser after all. Girls with attitude—“bad girls,” if you will—always present an irresistible challenge to horny males, and since most journalists and music critics are men, we can safely attribute at least part of her success to her “tough girl” aura.
While most of the glowing reviews were predictably male, the one that really put my knickers in a twist was Judy Berman’s retrospective review on Pitchfork. In addition to soft-pedaling the plagiarism issue and praising Justine for her “searing lyrics” (wut?) Ms. Berman celebrated Ms. Frischmann’s dismissal of the Riot Grrls and feminism in general:
Frischmann’s self-assured, aggressive yet not explicitly feminist persona was something new, even in an early-’90s rock landscape where powerful women were everywhere. She had no patience for the riot grrrl movement. Like its male critics, she took issue with many of the associated bands’ rudimentary musicianship. “It seems stupid to me to be in a band if you’ve no actual talent or gift for it,” she told Select. But Frischmann’s objection to the movement was more personal: “A lot of the riot grrrl bands I’ve seen have made me feel ashamed to be a girl.”
Female identity, in general, held little appeal for Frischmann. Unlike her contemporaries Liz Phair, Courtney Love, Tori Amos, Polly Jean Harvey, and Salt-N-Pepa—all of whom brought rare, explicitly female perspectives to their male-dominated genres and scenes—she had little interest in enumerating the highs and lows of womanhood. “We’re not writing songs for women or things women might feel,” she explained to Manning. “We try not to marginalize ourselves.”
There has always been a sharp philosophical divide between women artists whose work is explicitly feminist, or at least openly concerned with representing the female experience, and women artists who would prefer to be thought of simply as artists. “As far as I’m concerned, being any gender is a drag,” Patti Smith, one of the latter camp’s most notable members, once famously opined. The riot grrrls’ approach to female agency has won out in 21st-century pop culture. That may well be for the best, but it’s still worth stepping outside that relatively new progressive orthodoxy for long enough to remember that refusing to be defined by your gender can also be a revolutionary act.
Idiots like Ms. Berman and Ms. Frischmann sound very much like the morons who declared that the United States had entered a post-racial period once Obama was elected president. How’s that working out? I also wonder how the friends and families of all the trans people who have been murdered in the last decade would react to the Berman-Frischmann declaration of a post-gender society. What we have here are two broads in denial, heads firmly planted up their asses in an attempt to court the favor of the patriarchy. “I don’t want to be seen as a woman” ignores the simple reality that NEARLY EVERYONE ON THE PLANET WILL DEFINE YOU BY YOUR DICKLESSNESS AND THAT DEFINITION HAS MANY ADVERSE CONSEQUENCES.
Ms. Frischmann’s head-up-her-ass orientation is clearly evident in the lyrics on Elastica. “Searing” is certainly not the word I would use . . . “simpering” comes closer . . . “dick-teasing” is probably most accurate, but some are just out-and-out cruel and nearly all are suggestive to the point of meaninglessness. “In the same way I think a partly clothed body is sexier than a naked one, it’s more interesting to do a partially cloaked lyric than a blatant one,” Frischmann told Rolling Stone in 1995, giving herself a convenient out for her gibberish. As for the music, Justine Frischmann had a lot of nerve to attack the Riot Grrls for their musicianship, as Elastica was really nothing more than a very average post-punk band trying to peddle themselves as some kind of Britpop reincarnation of the Velvet Underground. The truth is Elastica is neither original (see plagiarism, above) nor musically adventurous.
And no, Ms. Berman, Justine Fleischmann’s persona was nothing new. Coquettes have been applying their talents for centuries. Just because this one wore black, played guitar and adopted an attitude of superiority doesn’t make her any less of a flirt.
Just to put this review in perspective, my favorite 1995 album was Rancid’s “. . . And Out Come the Wolves,” an album a hundred times as ferocious as Elastica. I have no qualms when it comes to rough, kick-ass music, as Elastica is purported to supply. I will now proceed to review each song on the album, putting aside my feelings about Ms. Frischmann and giving her a fair shot. Having given positive reviews to several Oasis albums, I have conclusively proven that I can put aside my feelings about asshole lead singers when evaluating their work.
Blow-by Blow Review
“Line Up”: This was one of the singles that preceded the album, spending a grand total of three weeks on the charts and topping out at #20. I’m surprised it hung on that long—the mix is terrible, with the low-fi guitar distortion drowning out the lead vocal. The rhythm section of Annie Holland (bass) and Justin Welch hold up their end of the bargain, but what the fuck was the point of those carefully-timed grunts? Yeah, I love music that reminds me of someone chucking it all up in the loo. The chorus is probably the best part of the song, with Donna Matthews’ harmony helping to make the listener aware of the existence of something resembling a melody.
In The Last Party, the allegedly “definitive” history of Britpop, John Harris commented, “‘Line Up’ was a brittle joke at the expense of some unnamed starstruck hanger-on, whose life revolved around the parade of groups who passed through the pages of the music papers. Its title came from Justine Frischmann’s wry observation that the press was in the habit of placing groups on its conveyor belt, well knowing that all but a few would quickly topple off.” With half the lyrics buried in the mix, you’d have a hard time discerning the subject matter without a lyric sheet. As it turns out, the attack on the “conveyor belt” is only covered in the chorus, whereas four verses are devoted to attacking the groupie Ms. Frischmann derogatorily labels “drivel head.” Though she attempts to mitigate her attack by referring to the drivel head as “another victim” of media manipulation, the amount of bile Ms. Fleischmann spews on an adolescent too young to know any better crosses the line into cruel excess, suggesting she was really pissed off at the girls who tried to get a piece of whichever pop star she was fucking. At the very least, Ms. Frischmann failed to display a whit of the emotional intelligence usually present in the female half of the species, but since she’s in denial about her own womanhood, her deficiency makes perfect sense.
“Annie”: Ah, that’s better. Though the lyrics are fathomable to insiders only, this exceedingly brief (1:14) tribute to Annie Holland is tight, powerful and pleasantly melodic—power pop, Britpop style. It’s also an only-in-Britpop experience—Jane Oliver (Graham Coxon’s love interest) helped with the writing and now we know where Damon Albarn came up with the idea to insert the term “Jackanory” into “Country House.”
“Connection”: I remember hearing this song on FM radio back in the mid-90s and loving it for the powerful bass and nasty guitars and hating it for those goddamn grunts. The opening riff was clearly stolen from The Wire’s “Three Girl Rhumba,” but rather than attack Elastica for their unethical act of ripping off a valuable contribution to music history, I will attack them for their incredible stupidity and lack of imagination. The riff is a simple two-note pattern that a hundred thousand guitarists have probably stumbled on while fucking around on the fretboard. It would have taken twenty minutes and not a whole lot of brainpower to come up with a suitable alternative that worked with the chords Elastica attached to the riff.
Legal issues aside, the music is irresistibly sexy in a suggestive sort of way, with the libido-tickling reaching its peak during the stop-time harmony-enhanced vocal on the phrase “a connection is made.” The lyrics contain some memorable and euphonious phrases but you’d be hard-pressed to find any cohesive meaning beyond the mistaken but ubiquitous belief that getting into a relationship compromises one’s rights as an individual. Ms. Fleischmann’s vocal is one of her best on the album, drenched in the attitude that made her so attractive to the British listening public.
“Car Song”: I’ll give this one an A+ for the retro background harmonies (though they’d fit better on a train song), a C for Justine Fleischmann’s kittenish vocal that caused Erlewine’s willie to go all a-tingle and an F for the nudge-nudge-wink-wink lyrics.
“Smile”: Oh! The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that accompany romance with rock idols! Jealousy so strong that judgment cannot cure! Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, and fill me from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty! Hark! Who’s there? What, ho! My love! Dost thou love me? I know thou wilt say “ay,” and I will take thy word. Take thou my sloppy seconds!
For those of you playing at home, name the four Shakespearean works cited above, a task that will ply you with far more satisfaction than listening to this dumb ass song.
“Hold Me Now”: One of the more musically interesting songs is compromised by sloppy, laid-back, oh-so-artsy performances by everyone in the band with the sole exception of Annie Holland. She’s a damned good bassist.
This is one of two songs where Justine plays the dominatrix, and frankly, she’s not very good at it. A big part of her schtick is demeaning the submissive (“I’d take somebody else if I could”). This is the unsophisticated kindergarten-level form of domination popular with wealthy executives whose psyches are riddled with privilege-generated guilt so they go see a dom for punishment so they can feel better about inflicting sadism on their subordinates.
“S. O. F. T.”: According to Donna Matthews, the initials stand for Same Old Fucking Thing. To drive that message home, Donna gives us the same old fucking dissonant-and-spacy guitar patterns that seem to be her go-to when she hits the limits of her severely limited riff repertoire. The song appears to be yet another in a long line of anothers where rock musicians bitch about the meaninglessness of their quest for fame and recognition then immediately write songs in the hope of gaining fame and recognition.
“Indian Song”: This one resembles many a song from the thankfully brief Maharishi era where acts like Donovan, The Beatles and the usual host of others attempted to enlighten the masses with a dose of spiritual awakening. And how about these searing lyrics!
If you want to,
Then you’ve got to
Let it show,
It is waiting,
It is waiting.
If you want to,
Then you’ve got to
Let it go . . .
I’m not feeling a eureka moment.
“Blue”: You asked for it—well, you’ve got it! Another opening with amp buzz! Pixies soft-Loud! Throw in a few punk licks! Harmonize because that’s what girls do! More searing lyrics!
Come down here and I’ll show you the wrong way
Try to rearrange this tired old line
Connect this smile and keep it standard
And reflective, blue
I can read your mind,
If you want to
I will let you blue.
I can read your mind,
I will let you
If you want to.
“All-Nighter”: I don’t think I’ve ever heard an album with two songs devoted to male impotence and consequent female frustration. As I don’t want to be seen as piling on, I’ll save most of my comments on this curious theme for the second song, but I can’t help but point out that there is only one common denominator in both songs, and that would be the person who wrote the lyrics and can’t figure out why guys aren’t getting it up for her.
“Waking Up”: The “Oh For Fuck’s Sake Award” goes to this plagiarized piece of shit lauded by the critics. Here’s the Wikipedia consensus:
“Waking Up” received positive reviews from music critics. Louise Gray called it “magnificent”. Stephen Thomas Erlewine of Allmusic wrote that the song “rework[ed] the Stranglers’ “No More Heroes” into a more universal anthem that loses none of its punkiness”. In his review of the single, Jack Rabid wrote that “Waking Up” is a “great song” that “sounds like Wire covering the Stranglers, with a sharp female singer. = Music & Media wrote: “The A-track is not only loud but definitely a song too, stretchable to more than just the alternative format.”
Wow! It’s “definitely a song, too!” Gotta get my hands on this one!
The song’s story: “I’m a privileged white asshole who finds it so haahd to get up in the morning, dahling, and ‘if I can’t be a star I won’t get out of bed.'”
On behalf of all the sincere and serious musicians who work hard and their craft and whose talents are often ignored by the media-mesmerized public, I say fuck you, Justine Frischmann.
“2:1”: The opening passage featuring Justin Welch on drums and Annie Holland’s bass is the best musical passage on the entire album. Unfortunately, Donna “single-tone” Matthews steps in and buries the rhythm section with the same old fucking thing, leading to a robotic vocal with nonsensical lyrics. Eventually, everything is buried in the mix, resulting in one big pile of electrified goo.
“See That Animal”: A song so thoroughly awful that I refuse to waste any energy on an explanation.
“Stutter”: I find this song deeply offensive on two counts. First, applying the title “Stutter” to a song that in part makes fun of a guy who can’t get it up has the implication that people who stutter are equally valid targets for verbal abuse. Secondly, responding to a flaccid member with accusatory taunting, interrogation and psychological noise is the least effective way to inspire a hard one:
Is there something you lack
When I’m flat on my back
Is there something that I can do for you?
It’s always something you hate
Or it’s something you ate
Tell me is it the way that I touch you?
Have you found a new mate?
And is she really great?
Is it just that I’m much too much for you?
The arrogance of that last line is a backhanded way of saving her own self-esteem. As the blogger/author Stonekettle has said repeatedly about the Trump administration, “No more self-awareness than a dog licking its ass in public.”
And zero emotional intelligence.
“Never Here”: This is Justine trying to cash in on her intimate relations with Britpop stars by writing a song about her eventual dissatisfaction with Brett Anderson. Musically, it’s one of the more cohesive pieces on the album thanks to the strength of the rhythm section, but . . . since she doesn’t mention Mr. Anderson by name, who leaked the backstory to the press?
“Vaseline”: In yet another burst of critical laziness, Erlewine wrote, “‘Vaseline’ speaks for itself.” Oh, really? Here are the lyrics in their entirely:
When you’re stuck like glue, Vaseline
When you need some goo
When you’re stuck like glue, Vaseline
When you’re black and blue, Vaseline
When you’re stuck like glue
Give me some
When you’re stuck like glue
If you’d like to woo, Vaseline
If it’s hot like you
Give me some
Do you need a clue
I want some Vaseline, Vaseline, Vaseline, Vaseline, Vaseline, Vaseline
Obviously the man has never engaged in sodomy . . . but then I’m not sure Justine has. If a dick is stuck between the cheeks, how the hell are you going to squeeze the Vaseline into the anal cavity? And if you tried to slip it in without any lubricant, well, you’re an idiot who deserves to be thoroughly embarrassed when the EMT’s arrive to pull your dick out of the fire.
Superficial sexual titillation, nudge-nudge-wink-wink.
It took four years and a few band changes for Elastica to finally release a second album (Menace). As creativity wasn’t one of their strong suits, this is hardly surprising. A couple of decades later, Justine Frischmann shared her regrets about the second album and claimed that Elastica should have been a “one-album project.”
That’s one album too many in my book. Elastica wins my award for Most Overrated Britpop Album by a landslide.
P. S. if you find yourself pissed off at what you consider to be my complete idiocy, please read my essay, “The Truth About Beets” before you comment.
The management thanks you, and have a happy new year.