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.

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."

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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.

Although Frischmann played guitar around the house, she didn't formally pursue music until she attended college and met Brett Anderson, whose band Suede would become one of the sensations of British rock in the early '90s. She also for four years has been the girlfriend of Damon Albarn, the leader of Blur, another toast of British rock.

Frischmann was even a member of Suede briefly but left because she wasn't happy with her limited role in the group. Within months, she started putting together Elastica.

The swiftness of the band's progress was documented in early '94 reviews.

"Before they were nervy kids scared of their own hype," a Melody Maker critic wrote last April. "Now Elastica are a joy to watch. Justine has graduated from a jumpy, apologetic presence to a compelling front woman who knows the value of a fascinating pout and sneer. She wouldn't even look at the crowd six months ago. Tonight, she's blowing them kisses."

Elastica's music benefits from its healthy balance of intelligence and instinct. There is a strong point of view in the music, but it never becomes labored.

Frischmann works hard on maintaining that balance.

"I am quite an over-analytical person really, and I've suffered a lot in life from worrying about things too much," she says, talking easily with no trace of the cool reserve of so many British rock performers of recent years.

"One of the great things about being in a band and playing gigs is you can just get up and do it. You don't have time to think about it, and that's very therapeutic for me. I like to be instinctive about the music."

About the biting edge in the music in songs like "Stutter" and "Line Up," she adds, "I think a lot of songs come out of frustration, where you can't say something to someone so you sing it instead--kind of like revenge without getting the blame."

Given the group's impact and potential, Elastica has already been placed by journalists at the center of a couple of trends.

In England, Elastica is viewed as the leader of a revival of the spunky, tuneful characteristics of such '80s New Wave acts as the Pretenders, Blondie, Wire and the Buzzcocks.

"It was surprising to see people start showing such an interest in what we were doing because it was so different (from) what anyone else was doing in Britain at the time," Frischmann says.

"We weren't trying to launch a movement. We were just into pleasing ourselves, and we happened to love the music of bands (from the '80s) like Blondie and Wire and the Fall and the Stranglers."

More important, Elastica--along with the Stone Roses, Oasis, Blur and others--is widely seen as one of the bands that could help rekindle U.S. interest in British rock.

She pauses when the topic is broached.

"Well, I don't think we are here to sort of 'break' in America, but we are definitely here to play gigs and see what is happening," she says finally. "I've been amazed so far at all the interest. . . . We weren't sure there would be anybody showing up at the shows.

"Mostly, though, I just think the tour is a massive opportunity for us to just see America on a personal level. . . . We just wanted to come over and do a few shows before all the hype from the album started kicking in from Britain. We had even hoped to come over last year, but we took the six months off to work on the album."

Frischmann still thinks that the six-month break was Elastica's most important step. With everything around them swirling out of control, the album was the one thing that band members felt they could control.

"I think the album is quite different from how I thought the first album would be in a way . . . because the stakes just got upped," Frischmann says.

"The original idea for making the album was just go in and do it in like a week and try to reach this small audience that we thought it might reach. . . . But as things got further and further and as expectations were raised, we actually found ourselves being mentioned alongside the big boys in Britain and we took off those six months to try to rise to that challenge."

* Elastica plays Monday at the Casbah, 2501 Kettner Blvd., San Diego, 9:30 p.m. $7. (619) 232-4355. Also Tuesday at the Whisky, 8901 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, 8 p.m. Sold out. (310) 652-4202.

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