Recordings

Elastica
Elastica
(DGC)

It's telling that rock criticism's favorite "strong women" -- Liz, Courtney, PJ -- have all recently stripped to their underwear in videos. Through approach and appearance, all three might (or might not) undermine supermodel standards of beauty, but the simple fact that they've disrobed suggests how deeply entwined -- and at war -- female rock expression is with media presentations of women's sexuality. In contrast, male rock figures retain their power and sex appeal by remaining clothed -- you never turn on MTV to see Billie Joe lipsynching in the shower or Beck strumming a guitar in his skivvies (though, personally, I wouldn't mind watching either).

Within this framework, the flashy video for Elastica's "Connection" packs a subversive punch. As singer/guitarist Justine Frischman and the rest of her band (two girls and a boy drummer) pretend to play their instruments, 10 or 20 naked young men kneel at their feet. The band wears black, the boys are cute and embarrassed and the power dynamic is one I've never seen before on MTV. Imagery aside, the video also moves well: Splicing in faux concert footage, director David Mould doesn't ambush the viewer with edits; instead, he uses them to emphasize the song's fab glam rhythms. Claims that "Connection" is the best rock single to emerge from the U.K. this decade aren't hyperbole, considering the lame state of British rock. Now zooming up the Billboard charts, the song is likely to succeed where Frischman's boyfriends, past (Suede's Brett Anderson) and present (Blur's Damon Albarn), have failed.

Unsurprisingly, nothing else on Elastica's debut matches "Connection." From their gang-of-four cover pose to the Wire-influenced scientist rock of songs like "Line Up," the group is stuck in a punk time warp. Effective in small doses, their formula lacks emotional and instrumental breadth, and Frischman sometimes tries too hard to be clever, rhyming "siesta" with "Ford Fiesta" and "Honda" with "Peter Fonda" on one track. Still, "Stutter" and "Never Here" (where Frischman praises and puts down Anderson the way only an ex-girlfriend can) are wittier and catchier than anything Green Day has to offer. Elastica is currently a great singles band; whether it'll grow (like Blur) or explode (like most U.K. bands) remains to be seen.

-- Johnny Ray Huston

Massive Attack
Protection
(Virgin/Wild Bunch)

"Three is my lucky number/ And fortune comes in threes," goes the third song on Protection, Massive Attack's latest. Appropriately then, the group's three core members -- Mushroom, 3-D and Daddy G -- have crafted a soundscape that draws on three main influences: hip hop, dub reggae and ambient house. Protection may sound more like a companion piece than a sequel to the 1991 smash Blue Lines, but it's no less a stunning achievement, the departure of vocalist Shara Nelson notwithstanding. Making up for her loss are new singers Nicolette and Tracy Thorn (from Everything But the Girl), as well as old stalwarts like veteran rasta crooner Horace Andy and avant-rapper Tricky.

To understand Massive Attack, remember that its musical vision comes from an art-school perspective, where individual styles and musical genres are nothing more than elements to be cut and pasted into a cultural collage. (3-D, who started out as a graffiti writer, is an accomplished graphic artist who does the group's original artwork.) The band members are thus free to explore all of their influences: the seductive, pulsating "Eurochild," featuring raps by Tricky and 3-D, lands closest to the territory explored on Blue Lines; "Weatherstorm" is an atmospheric landscape with a heavy dub pulse; and on "Sly," Nicolette's little-girl voice belies the sophistication of both her introspective lyrics and the lush orchestral arrangement. Masterfully finishing off a mix three years in the making is Nellee Hooper (Soul II Soul, Madonna), Massive Attack's original producer. Three, as De La Soul sang, is a magic number.

-- Eric K. Arnold

Jewel
Pieces of You
(Atlantic)

Three am can be a lonely place when you're wide awake and listening to the chaos echo between your ears. Once you give up on sleep and flick on the light, rather than put on a little brood music, it's better to listen to something guaranteed to disperse the night demons: tunes with a hint of redemption, delivered in the remarkable voice of a singer named Jewel.

Pieces of You has a fresh sound that's utterly free of pretension. Jewel speaks directly to that most secret part of you, in a voice you recognize at once although you've never heard it before. The 20-year-old singer/songwriter sounds a bit like a young Joni Mitchell, but her folk-rock songs are most definitely all her own.

The opener, "Who Will Save Your Soul," is a fervent appeal for a return to values in a world where, "You got social security, but that don't pay your bills/ There are addictions to feed and mouths to pay." It's an improbably lovely proclamation, made memorable by a voice that soars and lilts, aided by simple acoustic guitar. The title track deals with both sides of a society obsessed with surfaces ("She's an ugly girl, does it make you want to kill her? ... She's a pretty girl, do you call her a bitch?"), building subtly into a vehement condemnation of all forms of bigotry. Another dozen songs round out the disk, a string of lovely folk-tinged ballads that blend smoothly together like so many jewels dangling from a chain.

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