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.
Damn. I hate working under a deadline.
Here’s the deal: I have to complete this review before December 31 because I have word from the highest authority (sorry, but journalistic ethics deter me from naming my sources) that on January 1 the Tories will brand me a threat to sovereignty and ban publication of the altrockchick throughout the United Kingdom!
Such is the fate of an E.U. citizen facing a no-deal or shit-deal Brexit. The Brits are even getting ready to deploy gunboats against the French to protect their sovereign rights to fish and chips.
Hmm. Maybe I should have held on to my American citizenship.
My plan was to end 2020 the way I started it—with Britpop. I wanted to balance the series by shifting focus from the major bands and showcase some of the less familiar names, particularly the Britpop bands fronted by women. I thought I had plenty of time because I couldn’t believe that the negotiating parties could be stupid enough to opt for a messy divorce.
Well, fuck me for being an optimist.
Britpop may have had something to do with that optimism. At its heart, Britpop involved two complementary themes: a rejection of both American dominance in music and other aspects of popular culture combined with a fervent belief that it was time for UK musical artists to step up and reclaim the homeland by writing songs about the British experience. Britpop also served as a means of recovery from the gray gloom of the Thatcher years, giving a new generation hope in terms of building a more vibrant and inclusive society. And though the horrible term “Britpop” implies something light and cheerful, its greatest works challenged class structures and questioned the Thatcherian emphasis on materialism.
It should come as no surprise that some of the great Britpop albums failed to chart in the United States (Parklife and Different Class are the two most obvious “failures”). Oasis was the only Britpop band to have any significant chart success in the USA, but I’m reasonably certain that if the Gallagher Brothers had peddled their wares in their Mancunian accents, they would have crashed on the rocky shores of New England and returned home licking their wounds. Most Britpop bands rejected the tendency of previous British artists to sing American-style, and the combination of British bands singing in British accents about unique aspects of British culture was simply too much for xenophobic Americans to handle.
Sleeper was one of those Britpop bands who never charted in the United States despite a raft of great songs and an extremely appealing front woman in the person of one Louise Wener. Part of the problem involved signing with a fake independent label that was actually a major label subsidiary. As Louise put it in an article she wrote for The Guardian, “It’s fair to assume, as I did then, that an organisation dedicated to the purpose of selling records might exhibit some skills relevant to that purpose. The shock from which you never quite recover is discovering that record companies have no skills at all.” Having botched the release of their first big hit (“Inbetweeners”) by failing to print enough copies to meet demand, the fake label (Indolent) further confirmed their lack of commitment by providing Sleeper with “funding more commensurate with a village bun shop.”
While a bit more effort may have led to a modest breakthrough in the States (though Clive Davis and Arista mis-marketed the band as well), I doubt that anything could have persuaded Americans to get over the obstacle of Sleeper’s essential Britishness. Louise Wener not only chose to sing in her natural voice but also filled her lyrics with references to people, places and things that only denizens of the U. K. and hardcore anglophiles could have understood. While the few Dickens fans in the USA would have gone gaga over the use of the word “treacly,” they would have no frame of reference to grasp the term “peaky” in that pre-Netflix era and certainly no idea who or what Keith Prowse is. This is not a criticism of Louise Wener, who was one of Britpop’s most capable lyricists, but an acknowledgment of the curious and often unpredictable barriers presented by the cultural belief in American exceptionalism.
In addition to amateur hour at the record company and colonist resistance, Louise also had to deal with the “What’s it like to be a woman in a band?” crapola. “Because I wrote frank lyrics, I was depicted as sex-crazed and whorish (imagine such an accusation being levelled at a male rock star), and because I didn’t lie down, look pretty and wax lyrical about my feminine angst, I was summarily demonised. One music paper even published letters in which men brayed for me to be burnt as a witch.” Although she didn’t consider herself one of the Riot Grrrls (she saw their rough amateurism as an opportunity for Sleeper and their more melodic orientation), she understood where they were coming from and adopted their ethic of celebrating the power of female sexuality. Louise Wener was an intelligent, attractive and confident woman working in a sexist industry, a phenomenon that some found very appealing and others quite frightening.
Louise was such an overwhelming presence that the three male band members were tagged with the term “Sleeperbloke” to convey their relative anonymity. Nonetheless, Jon Stewart, Andy Maclure and Diid Osman (with Louise on rhythm guitar) formed a tight band who excelled at delivering melodic rock with a kick. The combination of fascinating lyrics and a sound that falls somewhere between the Sundays and the Pixies (two of their acknowledged influences) results in a bright-and-crunchy listening experience.
Smart opens with the aforementioned hit single, “Inbetweener,” a song Louise described as “about where people live and what they do in suburbia, and it’s about unfulfilled dreams.” The track opens with two nice layers of crunchy guitar emphasizing the flatted seventh on the F chord to bring out the grit, quickly followed by a sweet bass run from Diid Osman cueing Andy Maclure to establish the slightly uptempo beat and Jon Stewart to throw in a not-too-frightening screaming lead riff. The song flows exceptionally well thanks in large part to the rhythm section and a hummable melody enhanced by Louise’s slightly understated vocal —so well that you might not even notice that there’s a mini-key change in the pre-chorus and a full-on key change in the chorus proper.
I think Louise sold herself short in her sound byte explanation of the song’s meaning. It is indeed true that everything in your typical suburb feels in-between, lacking the vibrancy of the city and the alluring beauty of the country, but the song also deals with the tendency that exists in all milieus of modern life: to have “in-between” relationships to satisfy the sex drive or ease the emptiness inside while waiting for someone better to come along. The two characters in the mini-novel seem to lead separate lives within the suburban prison; she’s “shopping for kicks, got the weekend to get through” while “He’s cleaning the car on his pebbledash driveway.” Their visions of the future are unshared and extremely limited: “He dreams of a roller, she dreams of a fast getaway.” The chorus highlights the pervasive feeling of less-than that pervades the emptiness of their lives, a feeling that leads them to devalue themselves and settle for temporary fixes:
He’s not a prince, he’s not a king
She’s not a work of art or anything
It makes no sense (it makes no sense)
Another year (another year)
What kind of A to Zed would get you here
He’s nothing special, she’s not too smart
He studies fashion, she studies art
I think I told you right from the start
You were just my inbetween
Just my inbetween
You’re such an inbetweener
Later we learn that the “he” in the song is having a sexual orientation crisis of sorts: “He went to the Dream Boys, got tickets from Keith Prowse/Cancelled his lifelong subscription to Penthouse.” Meanwhile, she is reminded that he never really was her dream date: “She goes round the corner, she sees Harry Conway/She says to herself that she’ll leave him on Monday.” Revealing herself as a diligent songsmith searching for les mots justes, Louise changes one line in the final round of the chorus that says it all: “He doesn’t listen, she doesn’t laugh.” In less than three minutes, Louise created a memorable tapestry of life in the burbs, capturing not only the trappings but the deep frustration dogging the inhabitants.
Rough guitars, squeaks and feedback make for a pleasantly hellish background to “Swallow,” a song about a different kind of identity theft. First, though, Louise had to clarify that the song had nothing to do with the ultimate result of a successful blow job, though fans who thought so can be forgiven for misinterpreting lyrics like “sucked out” and “he messed up your bedsheets.” According to the co-author (Jon Stewart also had a hand in its composition), “Swallow” is “about a relationship breaking down. It’s actually a really sad song. It’s also about when people steal all your secrets and know all there is to know about you and the image is a metaphor for that.” Ergo, this “swallow” is more like “to swallow someone’s bullshit,” or, as Jenny Lewis would put it in the next decade, “And the talking leads to touching/And the touching leads to sex/Then there is no mystery left.” I love the line that forms the chorus and deserves the repetition it receives: “That’s no lover, that’s a vanity thief.” Once the intro is complete, the tempo seems to approach punk-level speeds, but the effect is a mirage, as the shift to the more melodious chorus—which feels a tad slower due to the longer notes in the vocal—remains at the same steady beat.
It would seem from the first two songs that “fucked-up relationships” is one of the album’s major themes, and Louise now proposes to rectify the situation with open and honest communication in “Delicious”:
You’re a big man
But you’re out of shape
I could help you
Get it back again
We should both go to bed
Till we make each other sore
We should both stay in bed
Till we make each other roar
You’re delicious aha (3) . . .
We should both get away
And explore our darkest dreams
We should both find a place
Where no one can hear our screams . . .
Talk about taking the words right out of my mouth, baby! I know I’ve suggested “a place where no one can hear our screams” multiple times to regular and prospective partners. There’s this mid-sized cabin somewhere on the Sonoma-Mendocino coast with these delightfully strong rafters where . . . well, let’s just say we left it all on the playing field and deposited so much DNA in the place that the most thorough cleaning will never destroy the evidence.
I love the mix on this song, particularly how the band dials it down during the verses, leaving plenty of space for the audience to hear Louise’s words with no difficulty whatsoever. I’m reasonably sure that “out of shape” refers to the man’s inability to pitch a tent, so to speak, and Louise is entirely right in applying direct, no-bullshit, unrestrained desire to remedy the problem. I also love the shift to a slower, grander tempo in the fade, where, in the throes of erotic desire, Louise adds two rounds of “Make it dirtier” to the chorus.
Sleeper wisely chooses to dial it way, way, way down with “Hunch,” a curious song that alternates between extreme quiet and a Pixies-LOUD explosion on the chorus. The lyrics in the quieter verses describe two “unsightly” people:
She’s so small
Tiny and crushed up
54, the size of a child
Long pale hair
Her eyes are all red
She’s got skin the colour of bread
He’s all bald
Crusty and oozing
Got six arms, lips like a frog
Great big hump
Tiny and hunched up
He can’t speak, just barks like a dog
The response to these physically and mentally challenged people appears in the powered-up chorus:
Don’t look at me with those freakshow eyes
I’m not like you at all
Don’t touch me, you must be crazy
I don’t like the shape that you’re in
The way you look reminds me of something
It’s all because you’re nothing like me
If that sounds cold, I believe that was the intent, as revealed by the lines “I’m not like you at all” and “It’s all because you’re nothing like me.” It is entirely natural for a young, attractive human being to go into denial about the inevitable decline that awaits them as they age; hence the narrator’s refusal to further explore her vague feeling that “The way you look reminds me of something.” It sucks to have to accept mortality, especially when you’re young and expect to “live forever,” to borrow a phrase from that famous Britpop anthem. Louise could have made the point much clearer by adding a closing line like “The way you look reminds me you’re a lot like me” but I think leaving the narrator in denial was a much more effective choice, as it leaves this cold bitch wallowing in her lack of humanity.
“Amuse” is an even quieter song, featuring Louise, a low-volume electric guitar and another fucked-up relationship where the narrator has bottomed out on self-esteem, “locked inside a prison of my own construction,” thanks to a manipulative man with high control needs. This is a classic example of bad masochism where rather than taking pride in one’s devotion to another, the woman craves psychological punishment:
Ignored me for days just so I’d want you more
Your beautiful face making my eyes feel sore
You’re tragically vain
You knew I’d adore you for it
This is a state the bad sadist in the song finds “amusing,” hence the song title. The closing line, “I think I’ve finally found a place where I can sleep” is highly ambiguous, but all I can hope for is that she’s not sleeping with that asshole. As in “Hunch,” Louise paints an unpleasant picture as a form of warning of the myriad ways in which people can lose their humanity.
It’s time to pick things up and Sleeper takes the Pixies influence a few steps further with multiple quiet-LOUD combinations in “Bedhead.” Except for a passing reference in the last verse, the song has little to do with “bed head,” the condition that occurs when you forget to use the conditioner and wake up with a veritable hair explosion guaranteed to ruin your day after you take your first look in the mirror. The more relevant meaning can be explained by the terms “pothead” or “crackhead,” in this case describing a person with a serious addiction to fucking. The best part of the song is what passes for a chorus where Louise attempts to draw her partner’s attention to her sweet spot by moaning “Higher, higher, higher, ooh ah ooh wow!” It’s all so delightfully rhythmic that it sounds like she’s having sex in the studio . . . but I’m certain that this is just great acting and not rock star indulgence.
Louise Wener’s penchant for playing doppelgänger and writing songs from the opposing perspective landed her in a bit of hot water with “Lady Love Your Countryside.”
The way in which I was portrayed was always violently at odds with the way I viewed myself; all traces of playfulness and irony were obliterated. When I cast jibes at the “right-on” brigade by writing a song called “Lady Love Your Countryside,” a tongue-in-cheek eulogy to the pleasures of meat-eating, aerosol spraying and motorway building, I was baffled to find myself being taken seriously (from Guardian article).
I’ve seen at least one interpretation that read the song as an attack on puritanic crow Mary Whitehouse, but what I hear is both an expression of impatience with equally puritanic and horribly judgmental political correctness combined with a satiric attack on the fuck-all pessimism of the grunge scene—the latter message similar in spirit but less opaque in comparison to Noel Gallagher’s commentary on the Stop the Clocks DVD as he explained the background of “Live Forever.” “It was written in the middle of grunge and all that, and I remember Nirvana had a tune called ‘I Hate Myself and I Want to Die,’ and I was like … ‘Well, I’m not fucking having that.’ As much as I fucking like him [Cobain] and all that shit, I’m not having that. I can’t have people like that coming over here, on smack, fucking saying that they hate themselves and they wanna die. That’s fucking rubbish.” No playfulness or irony there!
Foreshadowing her future as a novelist, Louise presented her case in ironic but concrete language, effectively bemoaning youthful nihilism, death wishes and faux chip-on-the-shoulder stances:
Let’s get messed up boy messed up good
Climb over here
And we could spend some time drinking and scheming
We’ll close our eyes
Until we find ourselves hard to believe in
Face it boy life is a mess
I want to see you boxing naked to the death
Run and get your cigarettes
They make your lungs all treacly
You shouldn’t look at me like that
Unless you want to mess with me
I don’t know what kind of brain could have interpreted her lyrics literally, but I guarantee you it wasn’t a brain working on all cylinders. Did some people really believe that Louise looked forward to a future with her loser boyfriend spending “our lives puking in Belsize Park?”
I am grateful every day for my microscopic fame.
Speaking of foreshadowing, “Vegas” clearly indicates that Louise had an early fascination with Sin City that she would later explore in greater depth in her novel The Perfect Play. The song brings us back to the lost-in-suburbia theme of “Inbetweeners,” where people live out elaborate escape fantasies to combat the ennui. In this case, the dreamer is a “guy who lives in a really dingy bedsit in Peckham who’s really lonely” (according to Louise), who socks away enough money to fly to Vegas and piss it all away. Andy Maclure opined that in real life the guy would never leave his bedsit, and I think the song would have been much stronger had Louise taken that path—it certainly looks like that’s where she’s headed early in the song:
He sings like Sinatra with more feel
Plays with his pocket roulette wheel all day
And no one stopped him
One of the universal features of life in suburbia—dating back as far as the advent of Levittowns in the postwar era—is the conspiracy of silence residents enter into in order to maintain the façade of a happy, civilized, perfectly normal community. Signs of underlying dysfunction are generally ignored and never discussed in polite company, whether it’s the stay-at-home wife popping pills with the curtains drawn or the husband sneaking in a hot young stud when the wife is visiting her mother. The guy in “Vegas” clearly needed an intervention, but “no one stopped him.” Not my problem. He’s harmless. Look the other way. I’ve got my own problems. Get off my fucking lawn.
There are two competing versions of “Vegas.” The album track opens with a brief intro highlighting Jon Stewart’s amazing tonal manipulation that transforms the guitar into Stephane Grapelli’s lo-fi violin before flipping to a classic pop-rock arrangement with a solid melody and a touch of looming sorrow. The single version pulls out all the stops in a rather grand production that mushrooms to include saxophones and a string section. I prefer the less-sanitized album version, as it feels more in sync with the true psychology of the character.
The weakest track on the album has to be “Poor Flying Man,” with its going-nowhere tale and consequent misuse of the soft-LOUD combination in a song with no narrative and hence no drama. The first verse hints at an exposé of our fascination with superheroes but that possibility crashes to the ground when the guy flying through the air turns into a frozen stiff . . . then I thought it might explain the presence of the Mercury astronauts on the cover, but those hopes sort of . . . flew out the window.
The Wener-Stewart composition “Alice in Vain” is the grungiest song on the album with Nirvana-like guitars in a position of prominence. Jon Stewart’s sinuous fills and powered lead solo represent his best work on the album, and Louise matches his effort with a vocal of equal intensity. The musical structure is fascinating; the key turns out to be E minor, though you never hear an E minor chord in the verses—just the tension-building combination G-C-B begging for resolution that takes a tantalizingly long time to arrive in the chorus. I also love the out-of-the-blue D-E major transition from solo to fade, an unexpected move that ramps up the excitement. “Alice in Vain” is one of the more musically ambitious tracks on the album, and Sleeper handles the challenge with aplomb.
The track opens with a street recording of an arrogant male prick standing in judgment of a woman based solely on her appearance: “God, look at that/She’s supposed to be on a diet/Wonder what her waistline will be like in five years time.” This turns out to be poor Alice, a schoolgirl who isn’t all that pretty and doesn’t have a boyfriend. Alice clings to an astonishing belief that “Girls don’t hurt each other,” a notion immediately corrected by Louise when she sings “Girl, don’t kid yourself.” Amen to that—teenage girls can be absolute bitches when it comes to comparing themselves to the perceived competition. The narrator seems to share a mea culpa of sorts by confessing, “I hurt myself/I hurt my Alice in vain,” an admission that it’s hard not to gang up on the ugly one when all the other girls are doing it. The salient point is that both men and women evaluate human worth based on presentation, a much more honest view of cultural norms than the classic men-are-all-assholes radical feminist take.
“Twisted” lacks the lyrical cohesion of most of the other songs on Smart, and though I think the filter applied to Louise’s voice on the chorus adds a certain allure to the song, there isn’t much substance under the sheets. “Pyrotechnician” serves as the grand finale, where Louise plays the role of a budding pyromaniac who finds herself irresistibly drawn to a pyrotechnician. There are few singers who can throw themselves so completely into the role of healthily-obsessed sex maniac as Louise Wener, and her out-of-breath vocal communicates that there’s more heat coming from her libido than the fireworks display. With the band rocking with fiery intent, “Pyrotechnician” proves to be an exceptionally effective closer, one that leaves the listener begging for more.
Smart is an outstanding debut album of surprising diversity and lyrics of exceptional quality. Sleeper had a pretty clear vision of the sound they wanted to create and the musical talent to pull it off. And despite all the shit she had to go through due to the absence of a penis, Louise Wener emphatically established herself as a superb songwriter and vibrant personality.
Were these normal times, I would tell you that I can’t wait to review their second album, The It Girl. Alas, Rupert Murdoch ruins everything he gets his grubby little mitts on, so for now, all I can promise is I will do my best to review Elastica before the British Navy attempts to recapture the glory days of yesteryear by sending the French Armada of Fishermen to a watery grave.