English rockers Elastica's new LP, The Menace, is something of a personal triumph for bandleader and co-founder Justine Frischmann, she said.
Since the band's 1995 self-titled platinum debut, the 30-year-old singer/guitarist has overcome problems both personal (her highly publicized split from Blur's Damon Albarn) and professional (keeping the band together) to see the album through.
"Obviously I've been through quite a lot in my life in the last four years," Frischmann said recently from her home in London. "I think you can hear that on this record. There are a lot of mood swings. The new album embraces a much wider musical landscape and takes in a lot of the music that I've heard in the last few years. It also embraces technology as well, because I've learned to program and use a computer and use DAT players."
The 13-song CD, due Stateside on Tuesday and released earlier this year in the UK, ranges from angular, blistering cuts such as "Mad Dog" and "Your Arse My Place" to moody, more experimental tracks such as "Image Change," the ethereal "My Sex" and "Miami Nice."
Still present on The Menace is Frischmann's long-running fascination with early English art-punk groups such as Wire. The early Elastica songs "Line Up" and "Connection" (RealAudio excerpt) borrowed from Wire's "I Am the Fly" and "Three Girl Rhumba" (RealAudio excerpt), respectively. The Menace's "Human" gives co-songwriting credit to Wire because it samples the bassline from the group's "Lowdown" (RealAudio excerpt).
"We kind of had ['Human'] for a while," Frischmann said, "and had been messing around with it, when I had 'Lowdown' on in the car one day. I just realized that 'Human' could work quite well using that riff. And I absolutely love that riff; we used to play it in rehearsals a lot."
The Menace also features Elastica's collaboration with singer Mark E. Smith of the Fall on "How He Wrote Elastic Man." When Smith joined Elastica onstage in Wolverhampton last month, it was a dream come true for Frischmann.
"He just turned up and said, 'I'll give you 45 minutes, and then I'm coming onstage,' " Frischmann said. "That was actually one of the high points of my life. I was just playing the guitar and watching him in front of me, and it was like being in the Fall, which I guess has probably been my lifelong ambition."
Like Smith, Frischmann has endured lineup changes in her band. After two years of international touring in support of Elastica and living in the spotlight, bassist Annie Holland left the group in 1995 (she returned in late 1998) and relations between guitarist Donna Matthews and Frischmann became strained.
By mid-1997, Frischmann said, Elastica's members were barely working together at all, and she retreated to her basement and wrote songs. "At that point I didn't really think I was writing for Elastica. I was just writing for the hell of it, kind of for therapy, really," she said.
The next year, after Holland and Frischmann reconnected, Frischmann called ex-Linoleum guitarist Paul Jones and booked rehearsal time to prepare for a performance at the 1999 Reading Festival. The group has since expanded to a six-piece lineup with former Fall member Dave Bush, who had replaced Holland on bass, moving to keyboards upon her return, and Mew contributing keyboards and vocals.
After being somewhat unwillingly thrust into the Brit-pop spotlight early in the band's career, Frischmann seems more comfortable with Elastica's somewhat underdog status.
"We're more about the art-school punk aesthetic, and I think that's where we've always kind of come from," Frischmann said. "We were kind of slightly pre-Brit-pop, and by the time that was really breaking out in England, we were actually in America touring. I was sort of interested in getting away from that."
Not that she's interested in what's going on now in England.
"It's like Nirvana never happened," Frischmann said. "At the moment over here, the only thing that's doing well is they call it pop, but it's an insult to pop music, really. It's more like Muzak that's doing well here, like Steps and manufactured boy and girl bands."
Lukewarm Reception Expected
A similar atmosphere in the United States, where such acts as *NSync and Britney Spears enjoy massive popularity, and where rock radio is ruled by rap-metal, has caused some in the music industry to predict a sour reception for The Menace.
Aaron Axelson, music director at San Francisco's KITS-FM, is a self-described "huge Elastica fan" and championed the group five years ago as a music assistant at the station. But speaking from a programmer's perspective, he's disappointed in The Menace.
"The climate at radio hasn't been too favorable to British music over the last couple of years," Axelson said. "Musical trends are cyclical, and right now it's more hard-edged. I had high hopes that Elastica would deliver a song that could open a new door, to reinvent themselves and provide some kind of in for new sounds."
But when he listened to The Menace, which he said he likes, Axelson didn't hear a song that would fit in the current modern-rock radio.
"I'm being a realist about it," Axelson said. "I don't think there's a slot here in the format."
Still, Frischmann is confident the band will receive a warm reception when it arrives in America for a monthlong tour in September.
"I think Elastica at the moment is a really good live band, and I actually think The Menace sounds better live than it does on record," she said.