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The Boston Phoenix Connections

Wire and Elastica return

By Douglas Wolk

JUNE 5, 2000:  In the mid '80s, a group of admirers of Wire's astonishing art-punk debut album, Pink Flag, formed a band called the Ex-Lion Tamers (after a song on the album) and taught themselves to cover the entire record straight through, note for note, down to the exact length of pauses between songs. When the reunited Wire toured America shortly thereafter, they had the Ex-Lion Tamers open for them -- in part because they refused to play any of their old material themselves.

That's one really interesting thing about Wire: they don't repeat themselves. In their first incarnation, between 1977 and 1980, they were evolving so fast that their three studio albums (Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, and 154) barely sound like the work of the same band; Behind the Curtain, an album of early demos, reveals that their songs mutated drastically within a few months. (This is the version of Wire that's become hugely influential among musicians interested in the intersection of high art and raw force: everyone from Minor Threat to the Volcano Suns to My Bloody Valentine has covered their songs.) During their second incarnation, in the late '80s and early '90s, they made some aesthetic missteps -- Manscape is just about unlistenable -- but they never even dabbled in nostalgia.

So it was a huge surprise when Wire reunited recently for a third spin and decided to perform their old songs again. At New York's Irving Plaza a few weeks ago, they looked like serious old men but played like kids who'd just discovered something great; their new arrangements (documented on a live CD, It's All in the Brochure, which they sell at their gigs) are even harder and more stripped-down than the original ones, especially the rethought, synth-free versions of their '80s material. They've since announced that they're not going to be playing those songs again any time soon -- but that relaxing the prohibition against facing their past has inspired them to find new ways of working and writing together.

Avoiding redundancy was the problem facing Elastica, too. The band's homonymous debut updated the sound of the post-punk boom -- and sometimes simply rewrote its songs. "Vaseline" quoted Blondie's "Sunday Girl," and "Hold Me Now" was a cousin to New Order's "Thieves like Us," but Elastica's biggest stylistic link was with Wire. (Their hit "Connection," in fact, was so similar to Pink Flag's "Three Girl Rhumba" that Elastica got taken to court over it and lost.) Elastica sounded great, but it was hard to imagine what the band could do for a follow-up that wouldn't simply be the same thing diluted.

They've taken five years to figure that out. The accurately titled 6 Track EP appeared last winter, with material that, it's reported, didn't quite fit into the then-forthcoming album; the 13 songs on The Menace nonetheless include five of the EP's tracks in different versions, plus a song that appeared on a soundtrack and a cover of Trio's minimalist new-wave hit "Da Da Da." (The Menace has been available as a British import for a couple of months; an American version may be coming out soon.) Elastica are still explicit about their stylistic points of reference. Wire are pre-emptively credited with co-writing the new album's "Human," which lifts the main riff from Pink Flag's "Lowdown" and sprinkles it with some original lyrics; and their handprints are all over the rest of the album -- "Image Change" is a technofied update of Chairs Missing's "Used To," and the chorus of "Nothing Stays the Same" borrows the melody from "Kidney Bingos." (Elastica seem to have gotten into the Fall, too: former Fall keyboardist Dave Bush has joined the band, and singer Mark E. Smith puts in appearances on two songs, most notably "How He Wrote Elastica Man" -- compare the Fall's old song title "How I Wrote 'Elastic Man.' ")

It's possible to pick The Menace to pieces with petty complaints and spot-the-riff games. The album is, nonetheless, terrific: energetic and risky and dripping with attitude. If Elastica's songwriting couldn't change all that much, their production could, and did. The secret strength of "Connection" was the way it played its mechanical nert-nert-nert-nert riff against a full-on, straightforward rock arrangement and punctuated it with atonal moans that were loud but almost subliminal. The Menace picks up on that multi-layered vibe, mixing together "raw" and "cooked" sounds, casual noise interference and slick, pulsating rock, and extends it to almost every element of the album. As a song, "Your Arse My Place" could've been on the first Elastica album; here, though, they play it straight and deliberately mess it up at the same time, giving its "normal" vocals equal weight with distracted screaming, balancing a straightforward instrumental performance with yowling blurts and overmodulated bangs. Glossy synths work in tandem with primitive drum machines; Smith's roar and sneer overpower Justine Frischmann's cool croon. The real tribute Elastica are paying Wire isn't quoting them -- it's adopting their philosophy of trusting their history enough to turn their back on it.

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