So, the cool kids already knew back in 1995 that the answer to the “Oasis or Blur” question was “Pulp.” In 1995, I certainly knew I was supposed to like Sheffield’s underdogs who rose from years of obscurity to deliver “Common People,” which is all the more relevant today as trust-fund kids remove the band’s class consciousness to ape their deadpan sensibility and ironic sartorial statements, which seem to be modeled after what European teenagers were wearing in the 80s according to my high school French textbooks. I did like them, and continued to after their 2002 split.
But if forced to chose one or the other, I’d take Blur without question. Their lyrics were clever, their melodies were interesting, and their influences more varied. Plus, the members looked like a nerdy straight girl’s version of a boy band. I liked frontman Damon Albarn, who had a snaggle tooth and a vaguely simian cuteness that comic artist Jamie Hewlett had to be tapping into when he was designing Gorillaz with Albarn. There’s palpable class tension in my preferences, to be sure. Blur were the London-born mockney art school boys Jarvis Cocker was vituperating in “Common People.”
Oasis, on the other hand, were doggedly working class Mancs. They also had no musical vision past Lennon and McCartney. Their lyrics, absenting principle lyricist Noel Gallagher’s dyslexia, were of the worst variety of rubbish: the purposeful kind. The Gallagher brothers also forged a rivalry with Blur for publicity and that their episode of Behind the Music confirms they’re despicable people. I like “Cigarettes and Alcohol” well enough. I enjoy singing “Morning Glory” at karaoke, but my enjoyment of the song completely resides in shouting the lyrics, a singular joy I also bestow upon Girls’ “Hellhole Ratrace” and Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Song Against Sex.” I have no use for these songs as listening experiences — I merely enjoy shouting along with them, largely to drown out the recorded sound. It’s an icky, selfish joy.
But if you’re angling for true Britpop allegiances, I’m closer to siding with Courtney Love on this one. Apparently some time in the mid-90s (possibly during Lollapalooza ’95?), she said that the future of rock music was “Elastica-r-r.” While history and personal drama unfortunately proved that mantle untenable, Elastica were my Britpop band.
I remember buying the band’s self-titled debut at some big box chain in 1995 because I saw them in Seventeen and heard “Connection” and wanted to be a member. I particularly responded to frontwoman Justine Frischmann’s androgynous look and too-cool persona, later finding out that she co-founded proto-Britpop band Suede and was dating Albarn. I already had the short dark hair and wore loose black clothes. I used dry sarcasm as a defense mechanism for being shy and chubby. In my mind, I was as good as in.
The clerk responded to my purchase with incredulity. Perhaps he found them disposable. I’m not sure if the guy was one of those boorish types who think girls shouldn’t play guitars. Their status at the time as a buzz band could have predicted their short shelf life, as assuredly it did for all-male bands like the Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, Interpol, and countless others. At around this time, shoegazer bands like Ride were aping the Black Crowes. A year later, peer act Lush would release their final album, Lovelife, which attempted to recast the group in a more contemporary image.
Shaking off the record store attendant’s rebuke, I took the record home and discovered a series of short, spiky songs brimming with frank recollections of a nightlife with friends that teems with the possibilities of bad sex and great sex recounted from a distinctly female voice. It was an exciting sound I was just starting to relate to. Revisiting the album this past week, I’m stunned by how fresh it still sounds. But when I was closer to Rory Gilmore’s age, I was just beginning to understand the frisson of sharing closed quarters with a boy you probably shouldn’t be with.
I wonder if the record store clerk and other folks of his station didn’t like Elastica because they knew the band ripped off bands like the Stranglers and Wire, the latter a lauded post-punk band then still pretty obscure in the states. I’d come to discover that the band lifted a riff from the Stranglers’ “No More Heroes” for “Waking Up” and Wire’s “Three Girl Rhumba” for “Connection,” among others.
Frankly, I don’t care. Britpop could be defined as a post-modern response to Great Britian’s pop legacy. A band like Blur pilfered from a variety of influences, eventually branching out to American indie rock. Albarn was particularly influenced by Pavement, whose frontman Stephen Malkmus apparently hooked up with Frischmann at some point. A former acquaintance once referred to Malkmus as indie rock’s Peter Fonda. I only abide by this statement as a counter to Love’s pronouncement that Malkmus was indie rock’s Grace Kelly, which sounds great but makes little sense. However, I do think it’s interesting that Frischmann mentions the actor in “Car Song.” I interpret Malkmus responding to the Anglo interest with “We Dance,” a song that sounds like Suede’s Brett Anderson could have sung it.
Oasis swung for the masses with the Beatles, a safe move because everyone steal from them. Elastica appropriated punk’s terse songcraft and tinny production and was penalized for essentially having the same taste as discerning record store clerks. But if you take out the riff to “Connection,” you still have a good song with smart, funny lyrics. If you take all the reference in “Don’t Look Back In Anger” or “Wonderwall,” you don’t have much else left. This isn’t to say that the members of Wire shouldn’t have been compensated. Just as I think the Rolling Stones deserved to collect every penny from the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony,” which sampled a classical arrangement of “The Last Time,” so do I think Wire and the Stranglers deserved credit. I just think, in the name of credibility, swiping from Wire is hardly a big deal. Bands with dudes in them do it all the time.
I also think my indifference toward Elastica’s musical plagiarism stems from the ubiquitous presence sampling has in my listening practices. I grew up on hip hop and probably justify the band’s decisions through that lens. Thus I’m also interested in Frischmann’s connection to former roommate Maya Arulpragasm, who would later become M.I.A. Then a filmmaker, Arulpragasm created the cover art for The Menace and directed the music video for “Mad Dog God Dam.”
(BTW, Robert Christgau agrees with me about The Menace being underrated. This is one of the few times we’ve agreed on anything. Even when we have, as with Sleater-Kinney’s output, he fixates on sex and Corin Tucker’s voice as the manifestation of the female orgasm.)
Arulpragasm would later vacation with Frischmann and write “Galang,” the song which catapulted her to pop stardom. If that’s the legacy Frischmann’s known for as she continues to retreat from public life, that’s a nice consolation prize. But I do hope people remember her band’s own limited output, regardless of its source material.
People sometimes refer to Polly Jean Harvey’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea as a kinder, gentler sound from the English singer-songwriter. Frankly, I don’t know what they’re talking about. Maybe it’s to do with the relative lack of drama involved in the album’s recording process, as Rid Of Me and To Bring You My Love were reportedly fraught with tension. It can’t be its content. Harvey may not make her lover lick her injuries, compare her selflessness in a relationship to a Sheela na Gig, or forsake heaven here, but the stakes couldn’t be higher. It may be love that she’s feeling, but it’s still potentially destructive and dangerous in its power, especially when let loose in (pre-9/11) New York City. It’s evident from opening track “Big Exit.” She wants the fucking gun, people.
If that isn’t enough vitriol for you, may I direct you toward “The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore” and “Kamikaze,” two songs that may be responsible for the extraneous parental advisory notice printed on my copy of the album.
Stories From the City was my PJ record for a while, though Is This Desire? would later come to challenge my ears and ideals more. The first album I had was To Bring You My Love, which I got for Christmas my junior year along with The Chemical Brothers’ underrated Surrender. It was a profoundly upsetting listening experience. After listening to it all the way through, I listened to “Teclo” a few more times and hid the CD under the bed, a place that I’ve only since reserved for The Afghan Whigs’ Gentlemen and My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. Its intensity scared me. But once I got used to it, Harvey’s intensity became one of her most clearest assets as a musician. It became especially appealing when juxtaposing her out-size voice, guitar playing, and stage presence against her shyness.
Some people also categorize Stories as her love album, which I also don’t understand, regardless of whether or not this album is about a rumored affair with Vincent Gallo. For one, I can’t pick an album of her’s for you that doesn’t focus on love. But this album seems most closely fixated on how love evolves, rather than obtaining it or being dashed against the rocks by it. Perhaps these were the same folks who quoted the lyric about Harvey watching her lover undress in the “This Is Love” and thought no more about it.
Did they hear “A Place Called Home,” “This Mess We’re In,” or “We Float”? Yes, these are love songs in a sense, but they are not about the beginning of a relationship but the restlessness or disillusion of it and the hope that it can become good or something else. There is no stasis here. Harvey’s bombastic guitar playing and Thom Yorke’s presence as a guest vocalist, most notably on “This Mess We’re In,” only ramp up the tension.
Even songs like “Good Fortune,” which seems to be an ode to wandering around New York’s streets with a lover, ends with the protagonist ready to uproot her sense of home.
I came to Stories during the winter of my senior year in high school. I was just about to break up with my first boyfriend. We dated for over a year, were totally unfulfilled and bored in our relationship, but were fairly a popular couple amongst the social circles of Alvin High School, which also made us kind of obnoxious. I was tired of being in his shadow and ready to move on. The album’s erotically charged content drifted me toward fantasies of galavanting around New York City with a mysterious stranger I met on the subway. This led me to project the album’s feelings on to the boy I started dating a week after I broke up with bachelor #1. It’s something I might share with fellow Harvey fan Rory Gilmore. Yes, songs like “One Line” are that powerful.
But the more I listen and reflect on Stories, the less I think about it as an album about the love shared between two people. Instead, it seems to be about the love a woman has for her interior life and how that’s manifested in her engagement with uncertain, sprawling terrains. These areas inform the album’s title and its content. For me, its most evident in Harvey’s engagement with the street, defined by longtime collaborator Maria Mochnacz‘s cover. Note that Harvey’s sunglasses, which protect her eyes from all that neon, present the illusion that she’s looking at you. It actually appears that she’s looking over her shoulder, perhaps confronting what may loom behind her. I think this freedom bewilders and excites her, as it does for many women who take time to acknowledge what a politicized act it is to walk a city street alone. I don’t do it near enough. When I do, I’m very aware of my size, sex, and, gender. I need to be more comfortable with it. I need to reclaim it.
It’s this love of the street that motivates her to study geography, navigating her environment alone in order to acquire a sense of fluency, since she has no interest in finding home beyond the journey toward it. Sometimes this leads to danger, which can also lead to epiphany. Sometimes these travels lead her to find someone to walk with, but can just as often prompt her to leave if her partner can’t or won’t keep up. This seeming departure from the wild, romantic gesticulations that characterize her early period into more mature, complex, and unresolved inter/personal reflections continues to inform her subsequent work (I’d argue it’s evident on Is This Desire?). Even if she doesn’t identify as a feminist, I’ll still follow the woman traversing the crosswalk alone.