Garbage's Shirley Manson isn't the kind of rock star you trust. Mom warned you about stars like this: Manson has such a great time working her danger-girl pose that you swoon for her even when you don't believe a word she says. She's a capo in the Redhead Mafia with hair that always looks dyed but never washed; she uses her evil sneer, fake fur and buckets of black eyeliner to come on like the tough art chick smoking in the girls' room, all Pat Benatar and nicotine. Before she puts another notch in her lipstick case, she makes sure she puts you in your place. In real life, Shirley may be a mild-mannered thirtyish newlywed, but who cares in her songs, the self-proclaimed "supervixen" invades your dreams and tears your little world apart, all without breaking a nail.
It takes a sly singer to get away with this much pretension, and it takes a clever band to help her live up to it. Manson spends most of Version 2.0, Garbage's second album, singing about her favorite topic how scary she is while the boys in the band filter her breathy voice through samples, keyboard glop, disco drums and thoroughly warped guitar sounds. It's rare to hear a rock record so carefully put together that still sounds so fresh and playful. But the airy sex groove of Version 2.0 makes a tuneful showcase for Shirley and Company, with enough studio polish to gleam like Manson's leather boots.
Manson's stardusted glamour seemed out of place when Garbage arrived in 1995, but then everything about them did. In a world of fresh young grunge ingénues, Manson's band mates were three Wisconsin guys who looked as though they'd just showed up to fix her sink. Garbage didn't bother to pretend they paid their dues touring in a van they were studio professionals, including producer/mogul Butch Vig. None of their tunes sounded as though it had ever, been played in a garage. They're like a grunge version of Fine Young Cannibals, turning subcultural energy into pop flash with a fabulously twitchy singer. (They even found their singer the same way Fine Young Cannibals found theirs: watching TV.) That Shirley she drives us crazy, and she can't help herself.
As the title implies, Version 2.0 updates the formula of 1995's Garbage, but the songwriting has sharpened, with catchier tunes ranging from the bittersweet gloom ballad "You Look So Fine" to the frantic rocker "Push It." Garbage stack melodies on top of melodies, with a slippery groove underneath. They absorb all the sounds they like, whether it's industrial guitar grind or easy-listening fluff, and process them into brand-new kicks. After all, recycling is a pop tradition that's older than the blues, and Garbage aren't shy about being scavengers. They root through goth, techno and hip-hop, swipe whatever they can use and leave the rest on the floor. Their thefts are often funny and catchy at the same time check out the way "Special" bites its melody from the Beatles' "All I've Got to Do," or the way "Push It" puts a sicko spin on the chorus of the Beach Boys' "Don't Worry Baby."
Manson steals the show, of course, preening with enough slinky wit in her voice to win you over even when she's rhyming "happy hours" with "golden showers." It's also sweet how she honors so many of her female New Wave icons. Manson turns herself into the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde in "Special" she's special, so special, and she's gotta have some of your attention. She goes cloudbursting with Kate Bush in "The Trick Is to Keep Breathing" and plays around with an old Patti Smith sex rant in "Hammering in My Head." And then there's the Romeo Void tribute well, the chorus goes, "If we sleep together/Will I like you better?"
Shirley sounds as though she's teaching a seminar on the mythology of the New Wave girl. She's earned the right, too; she connects the dots between the lonely Romeo and Juliet girl who mopes to Nineties modern rock and the lonely Breakfast Club girl who moped to Eighties New Wave. On Version 2.0, Manson uses her sultry voice to drag Garbage's intricate guitar textures out of the studio and into the real and scary world of pop emotion, where they belong. Whether she's bumming out goth-style to the strains of "Medication" or bouncing along with the "shala-la" hooks of "When I Grow Up," Shirley never lets you forget who she's really singing to: all the girls out there who are happy only when it rains. (RS 787)
(Posted: May 6, 1998)