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Elastica first made a splash in the United States five years ago, with the release of its brilliantly retrograde self-titled debut. Connecting the dots between Wire’s angular art-punk and the edgy sensuality of early Blondie, the British group drew a straight line that pointed back to the future circa 1979, when skinny ties and safety pins were the fashion accessories of choice and the coolest dance move merely required the ability to jump up and down. The group’s timing was perfect. Sated with grunge, “commercial alternative” radio—then in its ascendancy—embraced Elastica’s old-wave, anti-flannel stylishness and put the debut’s “Connection” into heavy rotation. A phalanx of nostalgic music writers played along, documenting the group’s success with fawning stories and reviews that asked the same musical question over and over again: With idolatry like this, who needs innovation?

With pop music, that’s usually a fair question. Unfortunately, Elastica’s faithfulness to its influences was also rewarded with lawsuits brought by the publishing companies of both Wire and lesser lights the Stranglers. So when frontwoman Justine Frischmann chants “I’m a third-rate imitator”—as she does on “Generator,” a manic workout from her group’s long-awaited second album, The Menace—it’s hard not to wonder if maybe that public confession wasn’t inspired by the lawsuits’ out-of-court settlements. But Frischmann is only half-right: There’s nothing third-rate about Elastica’s brand of imitation. Sure, the group owes a huge debt of gratitude (if not punitive damages) to a handful of influential old-school punk and New Wave groups, but don’t we all?

One surefire way of blurring the lines of distinction between your group and your heroes—and befuddling lawyers who still believe in antiquated notions like “intellectual property”—is to invite those heroes to join the band. That’s precisely what Elastica did for “How He Wrote Elastica Man.” Over a slurred, organ-laced cacophony that recalls the Fall at its trashiest and most demented, Fall vocalist Mark E. Smith makes an Oscar-worthy cameo appearance, chanting the letters of Elastica’s name and mumbling cryptic phrases with the cadence and accent of a wasted aristocrat. “Break through these class barriers,” he snarls. “Style. Magazine.” No wonder Smith is a living legend.

The most ambitious parts of The Menace use the pulsating, synthetic rhythms of German techno luminaries Kraftwerk and ambient pioneer Brian Eno as a musical blueprint. Former architecture student Frischmann scratches out the boring parts, though, compressing the inspired but endless droning of Trans-Europe Express into the perfectly lovely “My Sex.” The track clocks in at just over four minutes, a length that constitutes a veritable epic by Elastica’s minimalist standards. The even better “Image Change” ticks along like a tightly wound German-made watch, a percolating synthesizer providing sonic counterpoint to the measured recitation of the song’s art-damaged words: “Should the image change?/Would the rest look better?/Surface dissolves skin + bone.” Resurgent German popsters Trio also get Elasticized, with Frischmann & Co. reclaiming that group’s “Da Da Da” from the no-doubt profitable clutches of Volkswagen and what used to be called “corporate exploitation.” The instrumental “Miami Nice” rounds out the ambient portion of The Menace’s show, recalling Art of Noise, Eno, and the incidental music of a dozen imaginary art films. As musical wallpaper goes, it’s got a very pretty pattern. And yes, you can dance to it.

Elsewhere, though, The Menace punk-rocks with all the ferocity of the group’s debut. The album kicks off with “Mad Dog, God Dam,” the noisiest palindrome you’ll hear all year. Amid guitar lines that alternately strut and stutter, and cheesy keyboard effects that sound suspiciously like the Space Invaders noises, Frischmann gives a returning lover the icy brush-off: “Don’t want the same boy/Another time,” she sneers, perhaps directing her venom at ex-boyfriend Damon Albarn, who used the couple’s breakup as thematic fodder for Blur’s 13. “Generator” has an even harder edge, its overdriven guitars sweetened only by Frischmann’s intermittent, helium-tinged cooing and a keyboard “technique” that apparently requires the single-named Mew—a recent addition to Elastica’s lineup—to play the instrument with her forearm. Of the rockers, though, “Your Arse My Place” takes best-of-disc honors. The track could easily win for its title alone, but it also features the album’s crunchiest guitars, a messy call-and-response vocal attack, and one economical bilingual put-down: “Bonjour, adieu/Can’t win/With you.”

There’s no doubt about it: The Menace breaks no new ground. It does, however, plow even deeper into the same fertile terrain as the group’s debut. Like the first album, the new disc sounds as if the band has been mining the bins of used-record shops everywhere, searching not just for overlooked (or even celebrated) punk-era classics but for the one or two things about those songs that make them great. The group’s talent—Frischmann’s in particular—is for sonic distillation, a skill that’s allowed Elastica to turn in two albums in a row without a single track that could be called filler. A great guitar solo is grafted onto a great chorus, which repeats itself once (if you’re lucky) before the requisite quick!-before-it-gets-boring fade. Sure, it’s taken the group five years and several lineup changes to produce just two albums, an interval that virtually ensures commercial success will prove more elusive this time around. Perfecting the sincerest form of flattery apparently takes time, though, and in the case of The Menace, it was time very well spent. CP