Rock: Justine and the band that time forgot

Nicholas Barber on pop
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The Independent Culture

The EP

Chelmsford, August 1996. During 's set at the V96 festival, Justine Frischmann apologised to the audience for having been away so long. The group had been busy touring the world, she said. Now they were back home and ready to get their second album under way. In other words, this was 's comeback show.

It was the last we heard from them for years.

, the album, topped the charts in March 1995. The record was a homage to 1970s new wave, with two-minute, three-chord songs constructed from staccato guitar crunches, snappy drums, the Stranglers' heavy, grunting bass sound and Frischmann's bored west London drawl. It didn't have to struggle for publicity. At least one song was about Frischmann's soured relationship with Brett Anderson of Suede, while the keyboard player on three tracks was credited as Dan Abnormal, an anagram of Damon Albarn, the next man in Frischmann's life.

But even when was released, it didn't quite seem new. Three singles from the album had already been and gone - the first of these, "Line Up", having come out a year before the LP did. 's attitude towards schedules was already worthy of a building contractor hired by a privatised rail company.

Now, at last, the group have returned. Almost. In two weeks the group are following up the album with ... the EP. It's a deliberately low-key, low-pressure release. By containing six tracks, it is ineligible for either the singles or the albums chart. "The EP is certainly not intended to be some big comeback record," says Frischmann on the accompanying press release. "The material has been chosen to allow people to hear rarities and demos which reflect all stages of the band's recording between 1996 and 1999."

She's got some gall to use the word "rarities" here, when every recording with 's name on it is a rarity by definition. But she is right to downplay the record. Only two tracks hint at a new direction. "Nothing Stays the Same" is a modest, blank-faced ditty reminiscent of Kirsty MacColl and recorded by Donna Matthews on her home studio. "Miami Nice", another home recording, is a spacey electronic instrumental which could be an Air B-side.

Two tracks sound like -meet-The-Fall, mainly because that's what they are: The Fall's Mark E Smith slurs along to some garage rock riffing. Of the remaining two tracks, "Operate" is just like 's old material, but less catchy; and "Generator" is just like their old material, only with the singing recorded on a dictaphone held against the wall of an adjacent studio. The whole thing is over in 16 and a half minutes. It's fresh and fun. The only question is how it could have taken more than a week to record.

Several explanations for the delays have emerged. One is Frischmann's break-up with Damon Albarn, an event which furnished much material for Blur and even more for the music press's gossip columns, especially when Frischmann was seen in the company of Brett Anderson again. Another reason is that simply didn't enjoy being pop stars. "Justine almost wanted people to forget them before they came back," says the group's spokesman. A third reason, he adds, is that drugs "were prevalent around them". But Frischmann's best excuse is up there with "the dog ate the master tapes": she would have written a second album earlier, she has said, but she forgot.

What we can be sure about is the number of cabinet reshuffles between 1995 and today. By the time performed at V96, Annie Holland, the bass player, had quit (pleading overwork, ironically). Sheila Chipperfield took over, and the line-up was augmented by a keyboard player, Dave Bush. Then Sheila Chipperfield resigned, and bass duties passed back to Annie Holland. Finally, the band lost Donna Matthews, who had been Frischmann's co-writer/singer/ guitarist. She was replaced by a new guitarist, Paul Jones. Oh, and another keyboard player, named Mew. Got that?

To summarise, shed two original members, gained one back, and brought in three more. It's a Britpop trend: trade in your old member, and we'll give you two new ones for free. Dodgy have just hired a singer and a bassist to fill Nigel Clark's shoes. Suede brought in a guitarist and a keyboard player when Bernard Butler left Suede. The same happened with John Squire and the Stone Roses.

The sunken-cheeked spectre of the Stone Roses must be haunting Frischmann. Like , the Roses were in no hurry to complete the sequel to their acclaimed, eponymous debut. The Stone Roses came out in May 1989; the knowingly titled Second Coming eventually appeared in December 1994. But by then, the public was more interested in Oasis, Blur, Pulp and . The Roses wilted.

have eased the burden of expectation somewhat by slipping out this interim EP, thereby rendering the album's release less momentous. Assuming the album is ever released. The latest of many dates pencilled in for 's second coming is "early next year". If the band meet this deadline, it will have taken Frischmann and co five years to complete their sophomore LP - half a year less than it took the Roses. But don't hold your breath.

`The EP' is released on Deceptive on 23 August. play the Leeds/Reading festivals on 27/28 August.