'''You look hot! You look sexy!''' As Veruca Salt's tour van rumbles past barren Missouri flatlands on Interstate 70, Nina Gordon recalls the breathless blandishments she's endured recently. ''What's the most ridiculous thing an industry person ever said to you, Jim?''
Her brother, Jim Shapiro (Nina takes their mother's surname), ponders this for a moment. ''After we'd played, like, eight shows, we were up in Milwaukee and [an A&R exec] said, 'We want Veruca Salt to turn our label around the way ''' A venomous glare from his sister stops him dead. ''No?''
''Sorry. Let's blow this subject off,'' Gordon says brusquely. ''And scratch the 'You look sexy' part, too, if you don't mind.''
Veruca Salt have reason to fear flattery. The Chicago quartet which also includes singer-guitarist Louise Post, 27, and bassist Steve Lack, 24 rocketed from novice to Next Big Thing in less than a year. Miners of chart-ready noise-pop nuggets, they ignited a major-label bidding war over the summer that participants rank as the fiercest in memory. Last month, the group signed to alterna-heavyweight DGC Records (Nirvana, Beck, Counting Crows) for what a source involved in the negotiations calls ''the best new-artist deal ever'' a five-album contract that boasts an estimated $500,000 advance, with incentive formulas that escalate to a $2.5 million advance for the fifth record.
But Veruca Salt's profile encompassing every contemporary signpost of ''hot'' is both its blessing and its curse: The brightest blip on modern-rock's radar screen threatens to become more emblem than act.
Even their atypically highbrow roots evince Gen X hallmarks. Drummer Shapiro, 29, and singer-guitarist Gordon, 26, children of a Chicago lawyer, accumulated their musical experience on a relatively privileged plane he at Yale as bassist in a band named U Thant, she on a year abroad from Tufts in Paris (learning chords from her brother over the phone). Both eventually returned home after college, slackened by unrelated bouts of ennui: ''I was depressed and paralyzed virtually shiftless,'' says Shapiro. Echoes Gordon, ''I didn't have a plan; I had this open-ended life.''
Focus solidified in the form of Post a St. Louis native who majored in English at Barnard. Introduced in early 1992, she and Gordon started collaborating on songs; a Chicago Reader ad tossed up Lack a funeral director's son whose series of bands, he says, ''never really got out of the coffin room'' in which they practiced.