Elastica (album) – Classic Music Review
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.