Like their most obvious model, Blondie (sexy female singer + trend-hopping pop-rock band = airplay), Garbage's greatest virtues are all on the surface. It wouldn't be fair to call either of them shallow, exactly, it's just that they tend to celebrate pop more for its sonic pleasures and attitude poses than for its cathartic potential.
Garbage singer Shirley Manson makes for a great rock star at a time when such a commodity is rare. She's brassy, confident, self-consciously provocative, and enigmatic -- and her industrial-strength pipes can dart with ease from tough-chick bluster to girlish fragility. But her surface appeal, and her mates' production dazzle, has sometimes camouflaged the fact that as a lyricist, she readily settles for the easy cliché.
On Garbage's best record, its 1998 sophomore effort, Version 2.0, the ear candy was crunchy enough to make Manson's more obvious sentiments ("I think I'm paranoid," "I thought you were special") excusable. But Beautiful Garbage (a title taken from Manson comrade Courtney Love's song "Awful") suggests that the old, highly successful Garbage formula is wearing a bit thin, even to the band members.
The record's most archetypal Garbage moments -- the dense techno-rock of "Shut Your Mouth," "'Til the Day I Die" and "Silence Is Golden" -- are also the most tiresome, right down to their trite titles. They're basically "I'm Only Happy When It Rains" sideways; that is, when they're not "I Think I'm Paranoid" upside down.
Where this album really flowers, though, is with the softer, more understated stuff. "Can't Cry These Tears" is a creamy Manson tour de force: Blondie's "In the Flesh" as produced by Phil Spector. "Cup of Coffee" is a hypnotic, ambient ballad in which Manson clings to her ex-lover's brand of cigarettes like a life raft in the sea of love. Her patented icy resolve in the face of heartbreak only makes the song more powerful. And the spare "Drive You Home" is gorgeous and melancholy, devoid of the band's usual gimmicky flash.
If the group's heart really seems to be in the more intimate, emotional tracks, at least one pop gem is all about the surface. Splitting the difference between assault and seduction, between techno and rock, the most radio-ready tune, "Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go)," delivers a reminder of what a potent studio machine this band can be when it's at peak strength. It suggests that Garbage might still have a few hooks left at its disposal.
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