This review of Garbage's Version 2.0 was originally published in the May 15, 1998 edition of Isthmus.
It's tough being an international pop sensation these days. Memories are short, radio is partial to godawful dreck like Savage Garden, and the days of a common style for musical youth are long over.
In some ways, the lack of any dominant trend or preoccupation in things pop is an advantage for a band like Garbage. Perfectly content to work up accessible tracks that contain layer upon layer of influences, the Madison-based quartet (plus hired hand Daniel Shulman on bass) is ideally suited to a pop period in which the sampler, drum machine and synthesizer rule the day.
The software-inspired title of their second album, Version 2.0 (Almo Sounds), is especially apt -- without being particularly pretentious about it, the platinum-selling foursome has hit on a new theory of pop, where all sound is fodder for the creation of that all-important hook.
With such an outlook, the same elements can be reformulated and rearranged in endless combinations; a bit of new code here and an admixture of current sonic processing there, and the past becomes new again. Obviously, the denizens of hip-hop, Ur-indie and electronic dance music have taken this same view for more than two decades, but it's something new for commercial rock 'n' roll.
In spite of rhythmic cops from Tricky, Crystal Method, Daft Punk, etc., Version 2.0 is very much a rock record. Though Garbage was once dubbed a studio band, its pledge of allegiance to the Old World of hot tracks dominated by guitars and voluble singers has a lot to do with the presence of Scottish frontwoman Shirley Manson.
A highly assembled track like the single "Push It" gets its initial juice from the title line of Brian Wilson's "Don't Worry Baby" (it's sung "live" by Manson in yet another take on the sampling paradigm), but it wouldn't be much more than a polished novelty without her arch portrayal of a super-vixen who urges her limp lover past the disappointment of dysfunction. Does she mean to be sweet or cutting as she whispers: "Don't worry baby, we'll stay up all night"? Each successive spin of the disc reveals a different answer. That may not be an indication of high art, but it certainly confirms her abilities as an actress.
The album's other potential singles also depend upon Manson's performance. The harsh, ironic choruses of "I Think I'm Paranoid" may hew dangerously close to Elastica's pop/punk esthetic, but somehow Manson manages to rise above the second-generation quality of the music. Although PJ Harvey fans may disagree with the way their hero is referenced throughout the tune, it's plain that the way Mason drawls "manipu-lated" and "compli-cated" adds a big dose of fuck-all reality to her middle-finger jab at the star-making machine.
The fluffy, KimWilde-style delivery she employs on "When I Grow Up" isn't nearly as interesting, but even it "fits" the buoyant pop setting constructed by bandmates Butch Vig, Duke Erikson and Steve Marker.
And then there's "Special," another tune dependent on "live" sampling that has Mansion working her Chrissie Hynde impression so skillfully that it's easy to miss the exact point when Hynde herself comes into the mix, bleating out an electronically clipped snippet of "Talk of the Town." The doubling of vocalists is almost too clever, and yet on the level of pure pop product, the tune's a success. The peach-fuzz beach-and-mountain crowd (and maybe a few pissed-off prom dates) will probably make it their anthem this summer.
But the singles and the electronic dance grooves (of which the Tricky-meets-Techno "Hammering in My Head" is the standout) aren't the high point of this highly crafted release. Just when you think that Manson is content to offer a slight revamping of the sexy-tough grrrl-woman she played on Garbage's eponymous debut, she breaks the rules with "The Trick Is to Keep Breathing."
Honest, direct and surprisingly moving, her bittersweet sketch of a woman in psychic pain is the airy confession Karen Carpenter might have penned had she survived the wasting effects of anorexia. It's a song about misogyny, of course, but more important, it's a handbook for survival. The converted Goth girls who constitute a big chunk of Garbage's following in this country will be thankful to have it... and so will their mothers.