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Comeback Trials 

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Joan Osborne

at Park West, September 24

Elastica

at Park West, September 27

By J.R. Jones

It was a long time ago, but if I recall correctly, "Connection," the supercatchy Elastica single known for its blatant rip-off of Wire's "Three Girl Rhumba," was trailing off from heavy rotation at Q101 in the summer of 1995--just as the station was picking up "One of Us," Joan Osborne's soulful novelty number about God returning to earth as a weary bus passenger. Elastica (DGC) and Osborne's Relish (Mercury) had both come out in March, and both featured a strong front woman trading on her humor, grit, and unbridled sexuality. "One of Us" spent 19 weeks in the Top 40, Relish went triple platinum, and entertainment magazines trumpeted the New York blues singer's arrival as a major new talent. Elastica won a spot on the Lollapalooza tour. And then--nothing. When Osborne stopped in at Park West two weeks ago Sunday, she was introducing her first release in five and a half years, Righteous Love (Interscope). Three days later Elastica's Justine Frischmann took the same stage with a retooled version of her long-dormant band, playing cuts from their recently released sophomore album, The Menace (Atlantic).

The fact that they can still get booked at a large venue on the strength of chart action five years ago only goes to show how long the marketing cycle for pop acts has grown in the last 30 years, since the LP became the norm. Five years after her 1967 breakthrough, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, Osborne's hero Aretha Franklin had released another 11 albums of pop, soul, jazz, and gospel. A decade later, two of Frischmann's biggest influences, Wire and the Buzzcocks, had each released three studio albums in their first five years. Nowadays major-label megastars like Madonna and U2 put out an album only every three years or so. One couldn't help but wonder if Osborne's 11 new tracks and Elastica's 13 would amount to five years' worth of brilliance, and by that measure both albums are yawning disappointments. But The Menace is by far the more interesting, pushing Elastica into moodier art-punk territory and presenting its usual sandblaster choruses through a scrim of chanting and electronic noise. Righteous Love labors to strike the same balance between smart pop and blues moaning that pushed Relish up the charts, but its songs are more workmanlike than inspired.

Osborne is a different quantity onstage than she is on disc, the sort of vocalist whose clarion tone takes over the room. "A live audience is like an animal," she told Billboard back in '95. "You try to get them to sing with you and play with you. It's like a big dog. You tell them to let out a scream, and they do." The audience jamming the Park West, a mix of people in their 20s and boomers with kids in tow, was an obedient pooch, giving her an uproarious welcome. 'XRT was sponsoring the show and recording it for a "Sunday Night Unconcert"; somehow Osborne has passed that mystical litmus test that grants new artists permanent resident status in the station's narrow halls.

Her opening song, "If I Was Your Man," hung a hypnotic blues melody on a vaguely Eastern electric-mandolin riff, and mandalas were projected onto a screen behind the stage. It's one of the best numbers on Righteous Love--and one of only two written with the pro tunesmiths who wrote most of Relish: ex-Hooters Rob Hyman and Eric Bazilian and their old producer Rick Chertoff. Bazilian actually penned "One of Us" alone, but to produce the rest of the material, Chertoff sent Osborne with Hyman and Bazilian to a hunting lodge in Katonah, New York, for a week of "writing labs," and the resulting songs on Relish ran a gamut of styles, from the hillbilly yodel of "Pensacola" to the Ray Charles goof "Spider Web." I've never been crazy about the record's superslick production, but live that's not a problem: at Park West the grinding "Right Hand Man," in which the singer confesses to walking around town without her panties after a one-night stand, leveled the house.

The new album's nine originals seem like committee work as well, with Osborne collaborating with as many as four people at a time, including Erik Della Penna and Jack Petruzzelli from her touring band. (As one might expect, the songs concocted with them are more groove-oriented than anything on Relish). "Running Out of Time," written with Los Lobos' Louie Perez, pumps along on a funky wah-wah riff, and the title track, written with Virgin Records singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur, is one of the album's best and nerviest, a waltz-time ballad with a portentous buildup to a shamelessly melodramatic chorus. The slinky soul tune "Safety in Numbers," with its irresistible falsetto oohs, deserves to be a hit (and may be, after Interscope releases a video featuring the babes from Sex and the City). But from there the record devolves into pleasant but forgettable MOR pop, the lyrics occasionally banal ("You made my heart beat like God made the thunder / I was struck down by your angel face") or opaque ("The obliteration of your isolation / The complete explosion of your fondest notion / This disintegration is your elevation / It's a grand illusion"). The closer, a cover of Bob Dylan's sweet, simple "Make You Feel My Love," only magnifies the song-factory process that generated the rest of the material.

If Osborne's media visibility has been sustained by VH1 and her pro-choice activities, Elastica has coasted into the millennium on the fumes of Justine Frischmann's love life. Frischmann founded Suede in 1992 with her boyfriend Brett Anderson, then left him and that band a year later to start Elastica. After taking up with Damon Albarn, the ornery front man of Blur, Frischmann became tabloid material, and the couple split after Elastica started falling apart. The band's phenomenal sex appeal had always been generated by the front line of guitarist Frischmann, bassist Annie Holland, and guitarist Donna Matthews, but in the middle of Lollapalooza, Holland quit, and though Frischmann recruited a replacement to finish out the tour, she seemed to have thrown in the towel. "Her bass playing was such a major driving force in Elastica's music that without her we just didn't cut it," she confessed in a recent interview, posted on the Web site Harmony Central. The band tried to record a follow-up to their debut, but the sessions were a failure. A year ago Matthews jumped ship, leaving only Frischmann and drummer Justin Welch from the original lineup. Then Holland returned, and Frischmann has since rounded out the core trio with guitarist Paul Jones, keyboardist and programmer Dave Bush, and cheerleader-keyboardist Mew to record The Menace.

When Elastica came out, the blackest mark against the band was its blatant appropriation of jagged riffs from British postpunk classics. Elastica settled out of court prior to the album's release for filching the "Three Girl Rhumba" riff from Wire and a melody from the Stranglers' "No More Heroes" (used in their dead-of-night rocker "Waking Up"). The Menace is laced with familiar cadences as well: the ghostly "Human" includes a credited quote from Wire's "Lowdown," and the brief, ripping "How He Wrote Elastica Man," which opened the Park West show, is a tribute to the Fall with a guest vocal by Mark E. Smith himself. Onstage Elastica compounded the problem--or, perhaps, chose to force the issue--by covering not only Trio's "Da Da Da" (which Frischmann prefaced by saying the band had recorded it before learning that it was being used in a Volkswagen commercial) but also Wire's "12XU."

Yet unlike Osborne, who still seems to be feeling around for songs that will define her properly, Frischmann and company have just enough of a trademark sound to monkey around with, and to their credit they do. "Mad Dog God Dam" might have been the same sort of jeans-commercial hit as "Connection," but Welch's rock-solid drumming, Holland's crude, strutting bass line, and Frischmann's come-hither vocals are cloaked in hip-hop squiggles, video-game gunfire, an insistent, oscillating keyboard pattern, and Mew's distorted chanting. (A tomboyish presence in bangs and a Cheap Trick T-shirt, Mew tapped out a few keyboard parts at Park West but mostly danced and raced around the stage, trying to keep the circus rolling.) On "Generator" a jubilant cheer of a verse roller-coasters across discordant keyboard mashing, and on "Your Arse My Place," Holland drives while Frischmann and Mew hang out the windows and harass the boys. The band stretches out in the second half of the record, with mostly good results: the quiet "Nothing Stays the Same" gives Frischmann a chance to play Deborah Harry, and the acoustic rocker "The Way I Like It," decorated throughout with weird electronic burbles, flares up into wild electric guitar solo.

"I really needed some time," Frischmann announced near the end of the Park West set, attempting to explain the band's long absence. "I like lying in bed." The band seemed determined to have fun, even though their window of opportunity in the U.S. may have slid shut while the lead singer was drowsing. Songs from the debut album--especially the two-minute blasts of punk melody like "Annie," "Stutter," and "Vaseline"--were received like classics by those who turned out for the gig, less for their five-year vintage than for their echoes of older, better songs. That sense of familiarity may explain how both acts have managed to extend their shelf lives long enough to spend half a decade tinkering with follow-up albums: their styles owe such a heavy debt to the past that they were never really contemporary in the first place. Pop music, like supermarket food, is full of preservatives.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marty Perez.

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