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POP MUSIC : Strategy? That's a Stretch : British sensation Elastica worked hard to avoid the hype that goes with comparisons to icons like the Pretenders and Blondie. But the more the group downplayed things, the bigger the buzz grew.

March 12, 1995|Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

Elastica is one shrewd band, right?

What better way for a new group to build interest among record company executives and the media in the fiercely competitive British rock scene than play hard to get?

Here's the widely heralded quartet's game plan: Record a song that excites everyone who hears it but refuse to give a tape to more than a few industry friends--forcing eager talent scouts to scramble for ragged copies. No one wants to miss out on a hot new signing.

Add to the mystery by playing your first show under a fake name in an obscure club away from the heart of London--and then limit the number of copies of your first single to just 1,500, causing a rush to stores. No one in the style-conscious British pop scene wants to be without the record of the moment.

The strategy worked so well in England that Elastica was on the cover of several pop papers long before its debut album came out this month. Leader Justine Frischmann is also a legitimate star. In Melody Maker's 1994 reader's poll, she was second only to Courtney Love of Hole in the favorite female singer category.

It's enough to make the quartet--which will be at the Casbah in San Diego on Monday and at the Whisky in West Hollywood on Tuesday as part of its brief first U.S. tour--look like marketing geniuses.

Vocalist and principal writer Frischmann, whose attitude and bite have earned her comparisons to Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders and Deborah Harry of Blondie, laughs at the suggestion.

"The truth is none of that was designed to get attention for us," says the dark-haired singer, 25. "I have seen so many bands get caught in the rat race in England and destroyed by the hype machine, and we were trying to avoid that. It just backfired on us. The more we did to downplay things, the more people got interested in it.

"It was madness in a way. Suddenly all these copies of the demo were sitting on top of people's desks and there were like a dozen (label representatives) coming to our first show. Everyone was saying we were this great new band, and here we were without even enough songs for an album."

In a remarkable sign of self-confidence after releasing some attention-grabbing singles, including "Stutter" and "Line Up," the band risked being forgotten in the fickle British pop world by taking a six-month break from interviews and touring last year to concentrate on its debut album.

"We knew the music was going to be around a lot longer than the hype," Frischmann says firmly. "So, we wanted to make sure the music was right."

*

It's easy to understand why people began speaking so quickly of Elastica as a major new British rock force by listening to "Stutter," the group's gloriously appealing 1993 debut single.

There's a captivating vocal authority and sparkling guitar drive to the record that give it the immediate punch of such other debut wonders as the Pretenders' splendid "Stop Your Sobbing."

And "Stutter"--a spirited put-down with a teasing sexual edge--is typical of the accessible mix of sassy themes and alluring melodies on the debut album, "Elastica." "Line Up," the group's second single, ridicules record industry and media fawning over new bands. ( See review, this page ).

In both interviews and music, the members of Elastica--Frischmann, guitarist Donna Matthews, 22, bassist Annie Holland, 29, and drummer Justin Welch, 21--come across as disarmingly direct.

It's surprising, then, when Frischmann points to David Bowie and Blondie, acts that dealt heavily in fashion and image, as two of her earliest favorites.

"I think it is probably different in the '90s. Less emphasis on image--at least in my mind, there is," Frischmann says, when asked why there isn't more Bowie-like mystery in her music and manner.

"I have always felt the only way I have really communicated with people is to be very, very honest about what you are saying in your music and in your interviews.

"That's why we never, ever, like, try to dress up for photos, unless we have been forced to by a Vogue or whatever. We just sort of wear for photos and gigs what you would wear in the street. To me, it's not made-up images that make people interesting but the realities of their own personalities."

Frischmann may have studied architecture at London University, but pop music has been her main subject matter the last few years--and not just the creative side. One reason she is so conscious of the music business's rites and rituals is that she has been in a rare position to observe them.

As a child from a middle-class West London suburb, she was constantly exposed to music. She listened for hours to Bowie and Blondie albums from her brother's massive collection and was encouraged musically by her mother, who had once dreamed of becoming a singer.

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