If a mad scientist tried to build the ultimate alt-rock band for the late '90s, it would probably sound a lot like Garbage.
This unlikely musical marriage of three placid American studio graybeards and a fiery Scottish femme fatale vocalist couldn't cover its bases better if it was working with a checklist: Techno breakbeats and hip-hop grooves collide with rock propulsion, digital samples bump into crunchy rock guitars, state-of-the-art cynicism is always balanced by sweet pop hooks.
In fact, Garbage is such a perfect postmodern synthesis of hip detachment and pop accessibility that it--like an earlier female-fronted band, Blondie--invites skeptics to presume that it's merely a group of calculated poseurs. But, ultimately, all resistance must crumble in the face of this band's awesome sonic onslaught.
Garbage's sophomore effort, Version 2.0, isn't a radical departure from the band's 1995 debut, but it feels like a better integration of production and songcraft. At its best, it blurs all such distinctions.
Singer Shirley Manson and her bandmates are now confident enough to pinch ideas and make you feel that they're doing a favor for their sources. When Manson ends the lustrous "Special" (a potential hit single) with a quote from the Pretenders' "Talk of the Town," it's a thrill, not an annoying contrivance. And when she adapts the key line from Romeo Void's "Never Say Never" on "Sleep Together," you're so swept up in the sonic architecture that it's easy to forgive a lapse of originality. With absolute ease, Version 2.0 hints at the kind of contemporary collage sensibility that U2 strained so hard for with last year's Pop.
Bespoke Songs, Lost Dogs, Detours & Rendezvous: Songs of Elvis Costello
From the beginning of Elvis Costello's recording career, he made a point of branding his work "pop music." For Costello, the term "rock" had been pulverized into uselessness by the faceless likes of Journey, Foreigner and REO Speedwagon. Even "punk" and "New Wave" were too limiting for Costello, too liable to become dated. By insisting that he was a "pop" artist, Costello shrewdly positioned himself as an eclectic equally at home with Cole Porter, George Jones and The Damned.
Through the years, Costello's own albums have consistently flexed his stylistic range, but no one collection makes as convincing a case for his eclecticism as this new, sadistically titled set by Rhino Records, a compilation of some of the best-ever covers of Costello tunes. Rhino compiler Gary Stewart wisely avoided the temptation to stuff the album with Costello's best-loved compositions--after all, "Alison" is an undeniable classic, but does Linda Ronstadt's 1978 cover version really add anything to our understanding of the song?
Instead, Stewart focuses on songs that were either written for another artist, or in some way enhanced by another artist. The result may not be an ideal introduction to Costello's work, but it's still a dizzying display of the man's powers.
With apparent ease, he crafts a sexy, dead-on early Motown pastiche, "Unwanted Number" (for the film Grace of My Heart), a Drifters homage for Was (Not Was) with "Shadow & Jimmy," a C&W morality play for Johnny Cash with "Hidden Shame," and a convincing jazz ballad for Mary Coughlan with the gorgeous "Upon a Veil of Midnight Blue."
Best of all, the Rhino set rescues some tunes that fell flat on Costello's own releases. On Mighty Like a Rose, "All Grown Up" came off as churlish, but Tasmin Archer's sensitive cover reveals poignance and melodic grace that none of us knew were there. And Norma Waterson elevates Costello's pseudoclassical indulgence "The Birds Will Still Be Singing" to the heights he obviously intended. Most surprisingly, Christy Moore revamps "The Deportees Club" from its original, ill-fitting punky setting on Goodbye Cruel World into a fresh Celtic treatment, and we're all the better for it.
A few missteps aside (an Al Jarreau-like arrangement from Ruben Blades on the forgettable "Shamed Into Love"), Bespoke Songs serves as a persuasive testament to Costello's impact, by finding the hidden gems among his throwaways and professional craft jobs. Maybe that mock-pretentious marble bust of him on the CD cover isn't all that out of line after all.
Perfect Night Live in London
A lot has changed since Lou Reed and the rest of the legendary Velvet Underground claimed New York clubs like Max's Kansas City as their domain.
Throughout the years, Lou Reed has fought to keep himself innovative and fresh. On his new 15-track album, Perfect Night Live in London, Reed tries something that for years he thought couldn't be done, getting a good sound from an acoustic guitar through an amplifier.
With the help of a newfound toy called the Feedbucker, Reed found a way to eliminate feedback and finally play acoustically plugged-in, so to speak. Shortly thereafter, he was invited to perform at the annual Meltdown Festival held at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Figuring this would be the perfect opportunity to test out his newfound gadget, he put together a band of trusted performers including Mike Rathke on guitar, Fernando Saunders on bass and vocals, and Tony "Thunder" Smith on drums.
Reed's reworkings of such standards as "I'll Be Your Mirror" and "Dirty Blvd." are nothing short of spectacular, offering a fresh coat of paint to some of these withered rock masterpieces.
Shying away from many of his most famous tunes, like "Walk on the Wild Side," "Sweet Jane" and "Heroin," Reed decides on rarities like "Kicks" and "Coney Island Baby" instead.
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The big standout on the album is the audacious and hilarious "Sex With Your Parents," a slightly demented social commentary that takes the time to bash Republicans, while asking the immortal question, "What is stranger than having sex with your parents?"
Throughout Perfect Night Live, Lou Reed flexes his fast-talking skills with whimsical, often dry humor to go with the funky grooves and steady beats of his accompanying band. Showing that a veteran artist can connect with his audience without falling back on his greatest hits is a lesson the young'uns should take note of. But not everyone can have a Perfect Night like Lou Reed.